Hilltoppers making strides with defense, unselfishness

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Western Kentucky is doing it with defense. It’s doing it unselfishly. And, yeah, it’s putting some points on the board as well.

Rick Stansbury’s eight-man team will go for a fourth-straight win at 4 p.m. Saturday when Wright State pays E.A. Diddle Arena a visit. The Hilltoppers (5-2) are off to their best start since the 2012 team went 8-2.

“Most everybody wants to talk about points and all that, and that’s great, too,” Stansbury said. “When you get your guys really believing in defending, when you get your guys pissed off because somebody beat ‘em? That’s when you got something. Most guys get pissed off when they miss a shot. How many times you see a guy get mad when somebody scores on him? It don’t happen often.

“But when you get that kind of mentality, then you got something, and that’s what we gotta keep trying to build on.”

Western is holding its opponents to a modest 67.8 points per game. But over the last four contests that number drops to 62.8. On Wednesday, WKU shut down Eastern Kentucky to the tune of 17 first-half points and 51 total in a 32-point victory.

Through seven games WKU is also forcing 17.7 turnovers per game and recording nearly eight steals per night.

“The one thing that coach always preaches to us is if you go out there and play as hard as you can you’re gonna get good results,” WKU senior guard Darius Thompson said. “You’re seeing that with our steal counts and we’re just going out there and playing hard and making plays.”

Thompson is part of a revamped, veteran backcourt with Lamonte Bearden that is beginning to shape into a dangerous force to be reckoned with. The Virginia transfer Thompson had a career high nine assists Wednesday, something he had done only one other time in his career in a game for Tennessee against Tusculum on Jan. 4, 2014.

The Murfreesboro, Tenn., native also went without a turnover against EKU with his parents in attendance. He’s now +16 on the year with 29 assists to just 13 turnovers.

Bearden had six assists Wednesday as he’s working his way back into form after an early-season slump. The Buffalo transfer sat out all of 2016-17 by rule and missed all of the preseason with an ankle injury.

But the redshirt-junior is now averaging 3.7 assists per game and has 12 assists to six turnovers the past two outings.

“You rarely see a team that loves to share the ball like we do,” Thompson said. “Anybody can score and you look around and everybody’s cheering and up and excited for ‘em. You don’t see somebody have four points one night and down. They’re all cheering on the team. So it’s a great feeling and if we carry it on for the rest of the year we can be very special.”

Said Bearden: “Everybody’s willing to share the ball. It’s not even about who scores the most points right now, it’s just about winning.”

As a team, WKU is now averaging 14.6 assists per game – two more than it finished averaging last season. The Tops already have five games with at least 13 assists this year after reaching that benchmark 13 times in 32 games in 2016-17.

Wednesday’s showing was the team’s most-impressive to date in that regard with 24 assists and just six turnovers.

“Maybe the first time in my career, but I’d say it’s an all-time record, 24 assists and six turnovers. I hadn’t seen a stat sheet like that, even playing some cupcakes,” Stansbury said. “That tells me this: We’re sharing the basketball. All seven scholarship players were in double figures. I like that. We did it different ways, different people at different times.

“I love unselfish teams. I love guys that wanna share the basketball. That’s what we have to be. We’re not good enough to beat anybody with one individual out there. Individually, you know what we are. But as a team, that’s what it’s about, that’s why it’s called a team. That’s why our seven, eight guys play together.”

The unselfishness and improved defense has, of course, led to more points on the board. Western Kentucky is scoring 77.7 points per game (nearly nine points higher than last year’s team) and only undefeated and No. 4-ranked Villanova has held WKU under 60.

The Hilltoppers’ shooting percentage of 48.3 percent now ranks fourth in Conference USA.

Western will try to keep those good vibes going at 4 p.m. Saturday against Wright State, a team that has won four straight and has had a week to rest before trekking to Bowling Green. The Raiders started the year 0-3 before wins over Tiffin, Gardner-Webb, Jacksonville and Fairfield.

Senior guard Grant Benzinger leads four WSU players in double figure scoring at 13 points per game. Senior guard Justin Mitchell (11.8), redshirt-freshman guard Everett Winchester (10.3) and junior guard Mark Hughes (10.1) also fill up the stat sheet.

Wright State and Western Kentucky have never played before.

“It was the biggest game of the year because it was the next one. Now the biggest game of the year is gonna be who?" Stansbury said. "Wright State. The biggest game of the year now is gonna be Wright State. Every game we play, that next one, we gotta have that same kind of focus."

NOTES

• WKU's 24 assists Wednesday were the most against a Division I opponent since recording 26 at St. Joseph's on Nov. 12, 2010.

• Western Kentucky is 5-2 for the first time since 2012 when the Tops started 8-2 that season.

• Johnson (1,196 career points) is 31st on the program’s all-time scoring list. Michael Fralix is 30th with 1,203 career points.

• Western Kentucky has now made at least one 3 in 945 straight games.

• WKU is averaging 4,496 fans after four home games this season. The program averaged 3,915 in 14 home games in 2016-17.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop