One of the best seasons in Western Kentucky’s recent history is suddenly, and expectedly, coming to a close. And it will be a close to remember.
The Hilltoppers’ final four-game stretch includes the chance at clinching a first-round bye into the conference tournament, the final regular-season game for a cherished four-year senior, a trip to Murfreesboro to play a game with major NCAA Tournament implications on the line and the finale against a rival on the road.
“All I ever think about is it’s winning time,” WKU senior center Dwight Coleby said. “The last few games, it’s gonna get tight and the competition’s gonna rise up, everybody comes to give you their best shot and you gotta come prepared around this time because you’re trying to make it to the tournament. Just gotta bring your best basketball this time of year.”
The festivities start Thursday against Charlotte, one of the worst teams in the nation at 5-20 and 1-13 in league play. The 49ers have lost 12 straight – the sixth-longest streak in the nation – and rank near the bottom of the barrel in assists per game, field goal defense, scoring defense, rebounding, steals and turnovers.
The Tops (20-7, 12-2 Conference USA) beat UNCC by 10 on Jan. 13 and another win would clinch a top-four finish in the conference standings. Losing the rematch would be a gut-punching defeat.
“On paper, yes, we’re better than Charlotte. Unfortunately you don’t play on paper. Gotta play the game,” WKU coach Rick Stansbury said. “We don’t try to blow smoke up our guys. We’re realistic and we’re honest. This game, it’s about us. We’l respect Charlotte. And we’ll respect their players.
“But we do know this, too, if we’re right, we’re playing to our abilities, then we’ll be fine. But that margin for winning and losing is small – very small.”
On Saturday, WKU will honor seniors Darius Thompson, Coleby and Justin Johnson – the latter being the program’s four-year senior who climbed the record books to place his name among the best that ever did it. The play of Thompson and Coleby has been instrumental in putting Western in the thick of the league’s title race and among the bubble teams scrambling to make it to the Big Dance.
Oh – and Old Dominion (21-5, 12-2 CUSA), winners of five straight and NCAA Tournament hopefuls in their own right, will be in town to try to ruin the festivities.
“Old Dominion, on paper, they’re playing better or as well as anybody in the league,” Stansbury said. “They went on the road and won at Louisiana Tech – had ‘em down 25 in the first half. They just beat San Antonio and El Paso – El Paso by (49) points and San Antonio by 30-some odd. So on paper they’re playing really well.”
This week’s final homestand will be followed by a visit to No. 24 Middle Tennessee and then to Alabama Birmingham to close out the schedule. Western needs at least one win in the final four games to earn a pass into the tournament quarterfinals.
Stansbury’s squad has a bit of small momentum on its side. They stood their ground at North Texas to win in overtime, then filled the stat sheet in a smooth, dominant win at Rice.
Thompson has refined his stride thanks to moving into an off-the-ball role while Coleby toughed-out a minor left knee injury to remain a presence in the post.
“Those guys they came from two high-major programs, top-10 teams in the country,” Johnson said. “Obviously they’ve played with coaches and played with guys that play at a high level. Of course they brought that to the table when they came here.”
The Hilltoppers will also play in front of two more major home crowds this week – a limited number or tickets remain for Thursday’s contest and Saturday’s game has already been declared a sellout. Western has averaged 5,292 fans per game after 14 home games, a number that has steadily increased in recent weeks.
It’s very likely WKU will finish the year with its highest attendance average since the 2008-09 Tops played in front of 5,564 fans per game.
“No one has a job if it’s not for the students. That’s why there’s a Western Kentucky, because of the students,” Stansbury said. “Come out, create this environment, enjoy this environment, and help us because it means so much to our basketball team when this thing is packed. Our fans can make the difference in winning and losing Thursday night or Saturday night.”
• Western Kentucky now has an RPI of 57, a KenPom ranking of 61, a KPI ranking of 62, a BPI of 62 and a Sagarin ranking of 82.
• WKU now ranks 11th nationally with 15.1 fouls committed per game and with 408 total fouls, 16th with a field goal percentage of 49.7, 36th with 637 free throws attempted, 45th with 446 free throws made, 52nd in scoring margin (8.6), 65th in scoring offense (78.7 points per game), 71st with 327 total turnovers and with 7.2 steals per game, 78th in turnover margin (1.6), 82nd with 12.1 turnovers per game, 84th with 194 steals, 93rd in 3-point shooting (36.8 percent) and 96th in field goal percentage defense (42.4 percent).
• The Hilltoppers also rank 339th (out of 351) nationally with 413 total 3-point attempts, 327th with 5.6 made 3s per game, 326th in total 3s made (152), 246th with 9.37 offensive rebounds per game and 222nd in free-throw shooting (70 percent).
• Johnson now ranks 27th nationally with 7.22 defensive rebounds per game, 31st with 9.5 rebounds per game, 35th with 256 total rebounds and 59th with nine double-doubles.
• Coleby ranks 52nd nationally with 52 blocks and with 1.93 blocked shots per game, 59th with nine double-doubles, 89th with 8.1 rebounds per game, 96th with with 5.8 defensive rebounds per game and 98th with 220 total rebounds.
• Coleby (52) needs six blocks to crack WKU’s top 10 for blocks in a single season.
• Thompson ranks 30th nationally with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.77, 33rd with 36:24 minutes per game, 67th with 983 minutes played, 82nd with 130 assists and 84th with 4.8 assists per game.
• Thompson (130) needs five assists to crack WKU’s top 10 for assists in a single season.
• Johnson (1,513) needs 32 points to move past Steffphon Pettigrew (1,544) for 15th on WKU’s all-time scoring list.
• Johnson is sixth with 954 career rebounds at WKU – Bob Daniels is fifth with 964.
• Johnson now has 33 career double-doubles, one shy of tying Greg Smith for the fifth-most in a WKU career.
• Johnson is tied with Bob Daniels (480) for ninth for free throws attempted in a WKU career. Jim McDaniels is eighth with 514.
• Johnson is ninth in WKU history with 3,394 minutes played. A.J. Slaughter is eighth with 3,550.
• Taveion Hollingsworth (362) needs nine points to pass Kannard Johnson (370) for the fifth-most points scored in a single season by a WKU freshman. Mike Prince is fourth with 386.
• Western Kentucky ranks 77th nationally in attendance having filled E.A. Diddle Arena at 72.24 percent capacity on average, a number that ranks second in Conference USA to Old Dominion (73.21 percent).
• The Hilltoppers have made at least on 3 in 965 straight games.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop