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Tops try to break losing skid against Marshall on Saturday

(WBKO)
Published: Jan. 4, 2018 at 11:47 AM CST
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Marshall has owned Western Kentucky as of late.

Since joining Conference USA in 2014, WKU has dropped 5 of 7 meetings to its new rival, including the last four. The Thundering Herd is also scoring 92 points per game during those the last four wins.

“The way they shoot it at home, you look the way they play, they play so fast up and down, shoot quick in the shot clock. Any time you’re a shooting team it’s an advantage playing at home, you know your gym,” WKU senior forward Justin Johnson said. “They always play really well there and they shoot the ball really well there. It’s a tough place to play just because of that fact, of the way they shoot it.”

Western’s only two triumphs since the two teams began meeting regularly came Jan. 4, 2015 in Bowling Green and March 11 of that year in Birmingham, Ala., in the Conference USA tournament. The Hilltoppers haven’t won in Huntington, W. Va. — the site of Saturday’s game – since Feb. 21, 2004, also a streak of four consecutive losses.

“For us to go in there and win on their home court, you gotta keep ‘em below their (season) average (of made 3s) to have a chance to win,” WKU coach Rick Stansbury said. “We gotta find ways to make ‘em pay around that rim a little bit.

“We wanna run. But it’s a fine line. You either gotta run and score early, or you gotta be efficient enough to control the flow of that game some. We’re not better than they are doing what they try to do. We wanna run, too, but again, we gotta be very smart in controlling the flow of the game the best we can to take advantage of getting the ball inside some.”

What has made MU a formidable CUSA title contender in recent years has been the development of coach Dan D’Antoni’s high-paced, high-scoring, free-wheeling, fastbreak offense. Marshall ranks 11th in the nation by scoring 88.2 points per game and is in the top 40 in both 3s made and 3s attempted.

Junior guard Jon Elmore scores 23.5 points per game to go along with 7.5 assists per contest and junior guard C.J. Burks compliments him with 20.1 per night. The emergence of junior forward Ajdin Penava (17.7 ppg, 9.7 rpg) has given Marshall an inside option as well.

The Herd is also virtually nearly unbeatable at home. This year MU has won all 10 played at the Cam Henderson Center and is 33-7 there since the start of 2015. Marshall will try to run its home winning streak to 12 at 6 p.m. CST Saturday.

“They do something as well as anybody in the country – shoot that 3-point shot,” Stansbury said. “They’re difficult to guard just like they were (last year). Elmore, he’s a load. You look at his stats, his stats are not as good shooting the basketball, but he’s made up for that in his ability to penetrate and get to the rim. He’s averaging about 10 free throws per game. That’s a bunch of free throws now.

“He’s so crafty with that ball in his hands as far as making passes, making you think he’s gonna pass it and keeps it and dribbles. He’s very difficult to defend.”

Both squads have had the week off leading into Saturday, but that perhaps has helped WKU (10-5, 2-0 Conference USA) more than Marshall (11-4, 2-0 CUSA). The Hilltoppers will travel Friday with just eight active players on the bus while still awaiting word from the NCAA on the eligibility of freshman guard Josh Anderson and redshirt-sophomore forward Moustapha Diagne.

Freshman guard Marek Nelson also missed a lot of practice time this week fighting illness. He’s expected to try to give it a go Saturday.

“The sickness part – you can’t avoid that,” Stansbury said. “That seems to be something a little bit of every where now. You can’t keep it from happening. What I know is when it happens ain’t nobody gonna cancel any games and feel sorry for you. We gotta keep finding ways to get ready to play.”

The trip to Marshall also marks the start of a tough six-game stretch for WKU. The Hilltoppers head to Old Dominion on Thursday and then Charlotte on Saturday – and while the 49ers have only won four games and are playing under an interim coach, that will be Western’s first Thursday-Saturday test on the road this season.

Western Kentucky then comes home to finish the month against three CUSA title contenders: Alabama Birmingham, Middle Tennessee and Marshall. The Tops will likely be underdogs in most of those matchups.

“I think we usually like that better,” WKU freshman guard Jake Ohmer said. “We come out fired up and everybody looks down on us, but really we can come out and compete with anybody on the floor at any night.”

NOTES

• 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 40th nationally with 131 rebounds, 49th with 6.47 defensive rebounds per game and 63rd 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.

• The Hilltoppers go into the weekend with an RPI of 68, a KenPom ranking of 79 and a Sagarin ranking of 86.

• WKU ranks 27th nationally in field goal percentage (49.4), 41st in fouls committed (223), 43rd in 3-point shooting (39.2), 47th in turnover margin (2.9), 48th in steals (115), 60th with 7.7 steals per game, 83rd in turnovers per game (12.3) and 89th in turnovers forced per game (15.2).

• Western also ranks 323rd in 3s attempted (232), 307th with 6.1 made 3s per game and 251st in rebounds per game (34.5).

• WKU senior guard Darius Thompson is 14th nationally with 552 minutes played, 21st with 36:48 minutes played per game, 45th with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.67, 65th with 72 assists, 76th with 4.8 assists per game and 84th with 26 steals.

• WKU senior center Dwight Coleby is 53rd in the country with 28 blocks.

• Coleby and Johnson are tied for 50th in the country with five double-doubles each.

• WKU redshirt-junior guard Lamonte Bearden is 49th nationally with 28 steals and 73rd with 1.87 steals per game.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop

Rick Stansbury on facing Marshall on Saturday

Posted by Chad Bishop on Thursday, January 4, 2018

Justin Johnson and Jake Ohmer talk about about facing Marshall on Saturday

Posted by Chad Bishop on Thursday, January 4, 2018