BISHOP | Expect the unexpected with a WKU basketball team low on numbers, high on talent

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What to expect from Western Kentucky basketball this season? The unexpected.

The Hilltoppers, for starters, are infused with youth and thin in numbers. As I write this we’re not even sure who will still be on the team or still be eligible by the time March Madness rolls around.

What we do know is that the basketball played between now and then should be full of intrigue, excitement, and, yes, even fun.

“I think we have a chance to be really good,” WKU senior and newcomer Darius Thompson said. “We have a lot of talented pieces, a lot of talented players. We’re really athletic for pretty much every position. We have athletes, we can get up and go. To say how many wins we can get? Nobody really knows. It’s the effort and energy we put in to every night.

“Hopefully we play hard and to the best of our ability and we’ll get a win. Whatever we put in I think we have a chance to compete every night and put ourself in a situation to win games. So I think we have a chance to be really good.”

I agree with Thompson’s assessment. He’s the son of a coach and played at Tennessee and Virginia so I’ll trust his analysis, by golly.

The Tops do have a chance to be good. Good enough to win Conference USA’s regular-season title? Probably not. Good enough to win three or four games in Texas in March. You bet.

Good enough to excite the fans inside E.A. Diddle Arena any time they take the floor? No doubt.

We’ve witnessed Rick Stansbury’s second team twice in two exhibition games, and while that sample size is small and could be quickly dismissed, it’s apparent to my eyes anyway that this team is a bit different. There’s a shade more hustle, more quickness, more length and, dare I say, more talent.

That’s not to demean the squads that recently came before them, but these guys may turn out to be just fine without five-star recruit Mitchell Robinson who bolted back in August. As Sports Illustrated recently wrote, “this is still a quality mid-major team, fortified with high-major talent.”

“I think our biggest challenge still, is this: We’re just new,” Stansbury said. “Nine guys new, four of ‘em are freshmen. It’s new with those guys. But they have a lot more ability.”

Now, the issues with this particularly WKU outfit could be many. For starters, in two preseason games, there have just been seven players available.

That’s fine when the rules are a bit lax (at Samford) and when the competition is a bit underwhelming (against Campbellsville). That may not be so good when the going gets tough.

Justin Johnson and Dwight Coleby are the team’s lone post players at the moment. What happens when one gets in foul trouble, or tweaks an ankle, or flat gets winded?

Of the other six players expected to start the season, five are guards (and Marek Nelson is more of a perimeter forward than a body-banger) and three are freshmen. None can afford to get injured or foul out or break the rules or do whatever may halt them from taking the floor.

Perhaps Western Kentucky will catch a break some time this week before opening the season against a very good Missouri State team and the NCAA will allow freshman guard Josh Anderson (academics) and redshirt-sophomore forward Moustapha Diagne (amateurism) to play. That would be a serious boost to WKU’s chances of winning on a nightly basis and competing for a championship.

“We need those guys,” Stansbury said in just a wee bit of an understatement. “We were down two players already when we started in the fall. We need everybody we can get and both those guys are very important at their positions. It gives us some depth.”

The Hilltoppers you see Friday night in the season opener, well, there aren’t many of ‘em. But rest assured those left in a WKU uniform have banded together in the hopes of creating one of the more memorable seasons in Western’s history.

“It’s weird,” the new face of WKU basketball Taveion Hollingsworth said in perhaps a moment of self-realization, “because I ain’t think a team would come together like we do right now.”

PREDICTIONS SURE TO BE WRONG

Mike Sanford, in my opinion, was pretty spot on Saturday after a loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday in which his team finished with an abhorrent -6 yards rushing.

“We’ve gotta find a way to run the football because it’s gonna be tough sledding every week no matter who we play,” he said.

Uh, yeah.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a team struggle to run the ball like Western Kentucky has. I mean, sometimes a team at the very least accidentally falls into a 20-yard run – and the Tops have zero (ZERO!) of those plays after nine games. Insanity.

So as much as I want to console you and tell you everything will be OK with WKU football moving forward, it’s hard to trust the Hilltoppers will be able to break out offensively against a quality opponent – which Marshall most certainly is.

I’m taking the Thundering Herd 31-27.

INCONSISTENT CATS IN MUSIC CITY

How does Kentucky lose, at home, to a mediocre Mississippi team? Giving up 382 yards through the air doesn’t help.

We talked last week about UK handling prosperity and it’s possible that theme played into the Wildcats’ inability to hold a late lead after giving up 13 straight points in the second half.

Now the Wildcats are staring down the barrel of two straight road trips against tough (and tougher) conference opponents. First stop? Nashville.

After seeing Vanderbilt up close and personal it was clear VU is not as bad as it 4-5 record and previous five-game losing streak made it appear. The Commodores still have physical play in the trenches, Ralph Webb at running back and an incredibly-improved Kyle Shurmur at quarterback.

Those pieces should allow VU to give UK a significant battle Saturday afternoon at Vanderbilt Stadium. I also think that’s a big reason why the Dores are favored by three.

Give me the Fighting’ Masons in a 27-21 win.

WAHOOS IN LOUISVILLE

One must fully respect the turnaround Bronco Mendenhall has orchestrated in Charlottesville, Va. Virginia football has been downtrodden for quite some time, but the Cavaliers go to Louisville this weekend at 6-3.

They may not be able to win another game this year considering Saturday’s date with Lamar Jackson and the Cardinals followed by a trip to No. 7 Miami and rivalry game with No. 17 Virginia Tech. But, hey, UVA is going bowling so rejoice.

As for this weekend's matchup, Louisville is favored by 11 1/2 and methinks that’s a bit too high. Cardinals win 34-24.

Record to date: 12-14-1 after an 0-2 week and eight straight friggin’ losses I am just terrible.

Quote of the week

Western Kentucky senior Dwight Coleby on his freshmen teammates: “Jake can shoot it. Tay’s a bucket-getter – he had like 20? Marek? High-flyer. Trying to dunk on somebody. He tried to dunk on me in practice. Gotta look out for him.”

Musical pick of the week

This week marks the 25th anniversary of Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut album. But I’ve played you too much RATM in the past.

How about a little something new instead from Bad Wolves?

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop