CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Four games into an 18-game Conference USA schedule, Western Kentucky has raised some eyebrows.
The Hilltoppers are unblemished and three of their four league wins have come against teams considered to be challengers to Middle Tennessee (the only other remaining unbeaten team in league play thus far) for a regular-season conference title. The last two WKU victories have been on the road against such teams, including Thursday’s 75-68 win at Old Dominion.
“Teams can take it however they want,” WKU senior guard Darius Thompson said. “Just know that every time we come out here we’re going as hard as we can. We’re gonna give everybody our best shot.”
Thompson was phenomenal once against for Western (12-5, 4-0 CUSA) on Thursday in scoring 24 points. Senior forward Justin Johnson was his partner in crime with 25 – thanks in part to 5 of 7 shooting from distance – and 14 rebounds.
Those two, along with redshirt-junior guard Lamonte Bearden (15 points), helped Western win in a completely different style than a few days earlier when the Tops flew past Marshall 112-87 in an up-and-down, fast-paced shootout. Thursday’s conquest came in front of more than 6,800 fans and was played more at ODU’s slow, grinding pace for much of the night.
“The biggest thing is it’s always special when you go on the road and win,” WKU coach Rick Stansbury said. “Road wins anywhere are not easy, particularly when you’re going and playing in those tough, difficult places. We all know they all count as one win and one loss, but some games are magnified some. We know (ODU is) gonna be on the top when this thing’s over."
Western Kentucky now has 12 victories, the earliest in a season it has achieved that feat since starting the 2006-07 season 12-4 by Jan. 3 of that year. It can secure a 13th win Saturday by knocking off a Charlotte team trending in the opposite direction.
The 49ers (5-10, 1-3 CUSA) have dropped two straight and 4 of 5. They’re also 2-4 since coach Mark Price was fired in December.
Jon Davis (14.3 ppg) and Andrien White (14.1 ppg) are the team’s lone scorers in double figures for UNCC. The Niners are one of the worst rebounding teams and field goal defensive teams in the nation.
That doesn’t mean WKU can afford a let down as the chase for a championship now becomes real.
“To go on the road and have a chance to get a ‘W,’ you get one opportunity to do it. When you go and do that, it’s huge,” Stansbury said. “But it only counts as one win. Charlotte will count the same Saturday night. One win and one loss, so our next biggest game of the year is gonna be Charlotte.
“Enjoy this (ODU win) until we get on the plane. After that put it behind us, got a quick turnaround, get ready for the next one.”
• Western Kentucky is going for a fourth straight road win for the first time since 2014 when its won five consecutive road games at South Alabama, Troy, Louisiana Monroe, Louisiana Lafayette and Arkansas Little Rock.
• A win Saturday would make WKU 13-5 and give it its best start to a season since the 2014-15 team started that year 14-5.
• Western could reach the 13-win mark the earliest in a season since the 2006-07 team was also 13-5 by Jan. 13 of that campaign.
• WKU and Charlotte will play Saturday for the 28th time in a series dating back to 1983. The Tops are 1-4 at UNCC in their last five, winning in 2015 in overtime.
• Johnson is 151 points from moving past Art Spoelstra (1,510) for 16th on WKU’s all-time scoring list.
• Johnson needs six rebounds to move pass Dwight Smith (856, 10th) for career rebounds in WKU history.
• Hollingsworth needs four points to pass Jeremy Evans (224) for the 13th-most points scored during a single freshman season in WKU history.
• WKU has trailed for a total of 6:43 in four conference games.
• Western Kentucky has made at least one 3 in 955 straight games.
• The Hilltoppers go into Saturday’s game with an RPI of 40 and a KenPom ranking of 54.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop
Your updated Conference USA standings pic.twitter.com/Zc7MC2twAm— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) January 12, 2018
Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee now both top 40 in the RPI pic.twitter.com/ZBp4c2BuvM— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) January 12, 2018