Fifteen games into the 2017-18 season, Western Kentucky is trending to being a much better team in Rick Stansbury’s second year compared to his first.
The Hilltoppers (10-5, 2-0 Conference USA) have made their living defensively and unselfishly en route to an impressive start considering only eight players have been active in 14 games – and only seven were available for the other one.
By comparison, WKU won its 10th game of the season Saturday by beating Southern Mississippi 82-66 – it didn’t reach the 10-win mark in 2016-17 until Jan. 26. The victory was also the team’s seventh by a margin of 10 points or more, something the squad a year ago only accomplished nine times.
Through 15 games the Hilltoppers have also recorded 115 steals at an average of 7.7 per game (compared to 4.5 a season ago) and are on pace to finish with nearly 100 more takeaways than 2016-17. The Tops are also are forcing 15.2 turnovers per game (compared to 10.7 forced last year).
This year’s squad has 214 assists already compared to 397 in 32 games last season and are pace to finish with 442. Western’s 22-assist outing Saturday was its second game of the year with at least 20 assists.
“As a team we really have fun and pride ourself on finding that open man,” WKU senior guard Darius Thompson said. “Nobody’s really selfish, everybody’s unselfish trying to make plays for others and it shows.”
The Tops have also done an excellent job most nights of getting to the line while limiting the opponent’s opportunities to score with the clock stopped. They’ve made 215 free throws while having surrendered just 216 free throw attempts by the opposition.
Going into 2018 WKU ranks 12th in the nation at 14.9 fouls committed per game.
“We’re gonna get fouled a bunch because we’re gonna do two things that caused you to get fouled: We’re gonna throw it to the paint and we’re gonna drive it to the paint,” WKU coach Rick Stansbury said. “Those two things create fouls. Making free throws is always an important stat.”
Western Kentucky doesn’t play again until 6 p.m. CST Saturday at Marshall, a place it hasn’t won at since 2004. The Thundering Herd (11-4, 2-0 CUSA) have also won four straight and 6 of 8 in the series going back to 2013.
One of the toughest matchups for all teams in Conference USA, Dan D’Antoni’s team continues to light up scoreboards with a fast-paced style.
“We all know what their gonna do,” Stansbury said. “So it ought to be a high-octane game because we’re gonna get up and down the floor, too. We’ll run, but at the same time we just gotta be smart how we run. What they do, they do it better than anybody else in this league – run and shoot 3s.
“They’ll let you have some layups some times. But after that we gotta be able to make ‘em guard us some. We got a couple guys that they gotta guard along that baseline.”
After Saturday’s game in Huntington, W. Va., Western will face road tests at Old Dominion (10-3, 1-0) and Charlotte (4-8, 0-1) before returning home to host Alabama Birmingham (9-5, 0-1, Middle Tennessee (9-4, 1-0) and the rematch with Marshall to end the month.
That stretch will tell just how far WKU has come and just how far it has to go, but through 15 games the returns have been mostly positive.
• WKU senior forward Justin Johnson needs seven points to pass Chuck Rawlings (1,314) for 21st on WKU’s all-time scoring list and 11 points to pass Darel Carrier (1,318) for 20th.
• Johnson needs 28 rebounds to move pass Dwight Smith (856, 10th) for career rebounds in WKU history.
• Johnson ranks 33rd nationally with 131 rebounds, 49th with 6.47 defensive rebounds per game and 64th with 8.7 rebounds per game.
• Guard Taveion Hollingsworth needs 18 points to pass Jeremy Evans (224) for the 13th-most points scored during a single freshman season in WKU history.
• Western Kentucky ranks fifth in Conference USA in average attendance at 4,586 fans per game.
• The Hilltoppers begin the new year with an RPI of 67, a KenPom ranking of 81 and a Sagarin ranking of 87.
• WKU ranks 29th nationally in field goal percentage (49.4), 34th in steals (115), 47th in 3-point shooting (39.2), 50th in turnover margin (2.9), 58th with 7.7 steals per game, 73rd in fouls committed (223), 86th in turnovers per game (12.3) and 87th in turnovers forced per game (15.2).
• Western also ranks 319th in 3s attempted (232), 308th in 6.1 made 3s per game and 251st in rebounds per game (34.5).
• Thompson is seventh nationally with 552 minutes played, 20th with 36:48 minutes played per game, 45th with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.67, 55th with 72 assists, 69th with 26 steals and 77th with 4.8 assists per game.
• WKU senior center Dwight Coleby is 49th in the country with 28 blocks.
• Coleby and Johnson are tied for 45th in the country with five double-doubles each.
• WKU redshirt-junior guard Lamonte Bearden is 45th nationally with 28 steals and 70th nationally with 1.87 steals per game.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop