Tops have stiff test right out of the gate with MVC favorite Missouri State

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Western Kentucky won three its exhibition games in a 10-day span by an average margin of 32.7 points. But that means very little starting Friday.

“We’re all ready to go Friday,” WKU freshman guard Jake Ohmer said. “We’re ready to come out and play somebody that people think maybe we can’t beat or they’re picked to win their conference or whatever. We’re gonna come out and we’re gonna give you our all, we just need to sell out Diddle.”

Missouri State will try to spoil the Hilltoppers’ home opener at 7 p.m. Friday And it’s a team more than capable of doing just that.

The Bears are the Missouri Valley Conference preseason favorites led by preseason conference player of the year, senior forward Alize Johnson. Johnson (6-9, 210), who threw his name into NBA Draft consideration after last season, has been projected by ESPN as a second-round pick in next year’s draft.

At least a dozen NBA scouts are expected inside E.A. Diddle Arena on Friday to watch Johnson.

But the big-time pro prospect isn’t the only weapon for MSU, coached by Paul Lusk. Three other starters return including junior forward Obediah Church, senior forward Jarrid Rhodes and senior guard Ronnie Rousseau. Guards Jarred Dixon and and Ryan Kreklow each played in 33 games last year.

“We’ve got as good of a team, in my opinion, that’s gonna come up in here,” WKU coach Rick Stansbury said about Missouri State. “They’re picked to win the Missouri Valley and anybody who knows basketball understands the Missouri Valley’s a really good basketball league. Some people say they got a lottery pick in the Johnson kid. So we got our work cut out for us Friday night.

“We wanted a tough schedule, we wanted an opportunity for people to see good teams, well they’re gonna get the opportunity Friday night. We need this coliseum packed this first night. Because that could be the difference between winning and losing, this crowd and this place.”

Stansbury’s squad is coming off a three-game exhibition season where it won at Samford and in home tilts against Campbellsville and Cumberland. The second-year WKU coach has only had seven players available in those games while awaiting the NCAA to rule on the eligibility of freshman guard Josh Anderson and redshirt-sophomore Moustapha Diagne.

But there’s a good chance Stansbury be able to deploy redshirt-junior guard Lamonte Bearden on Friday. The Buffalo transfer sat out last season by rule and has yet to play this year with an ankle injury.

“He changes our team and he gives us a little bit more versatility to play smaller at times because we’re down (Diagne) and down (Anderson), we’re gonna be forced to play small – which I’m OK (with). We just gotta make people adjust to us,” Stansbury said. “If we can win on the defensive end, then we can put some pressure on ‘em offensively.”

Despite the shortened roster, scoring hasn’t been an issue for Western in its three scrimmages. The Hilltoppers averaged 93 points per game, racked up 59 assists and shot 58.8 percent from the field.

Freshman guard Taveion Hollingsworth led a revamped roster each night in scoring. He, along with senior guard Darius Thompson and senior forward Justin Johnson, was named a team captain Wednesday.

“I think everybody sees the difference in this team from last year, the pace that we play at, being up-and-down,” Johnson said. “For a guy like me that’s not used to it, I gotta keep getting in better shape, especially playing that 1-3-1 (defense) at the top of it.

“I think it’s fun for people to watch. You get up and down the court like that, a lot of dunks, a lot of athletes, guys hitting shots. But the key factor is getting those stops on the defensive end.”

Western, oddly enough, has never played Missouri State despite the two schools being separated by just 439 miles. Beating the Bears will give the Tops a fourth straight season-opening win.

“I think the two things that kinda stand out, and they’re kind of contagious,” Stansbury said about his team, “I think we’re playing with great effort, I think we’re playing real unselfish.”

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop