Now that Western Kentucky has rebuilt and rebranded itself, the mission for 2018-19 is to reload.
The Hilltoppers will still have a relatively young and relatively new roster in Year Three of the Rick Stansbury regime. The program loses the eligibility of three seniors and brings in – at least – five new players to Bowling Green next year.
The current group raised expectations for those that come after them to try to duplicate the successes of a team that won 27 games.
“We want people feeling good about Western Kentucky,” Stansbury said Tuesday before immediately hitting the recruiting trail Wednesday. “We want to believe when we get off that bus to come here and play we’ve got a chance to win – and that was the belief. That’s what you want as a coach and as a player.”
A 69-64 loss to Utah at Madison Square Garden in the semifinals of the National Invitational Tournament was just the fifth for WKU since Dec. 22, a run of 20-5 for the Tops. Much of that success was credited to the play of the program’s three seniors Justin Johnson, Darius Thompson and Dwight Coleby, as well as freshman Taveion Hollingsworth.
Only Hollingsworth returns out of that group and will be expected to have an increased leadership role next year.
While Western will still be on the youthful side, many of the players it counted on – in various roles – in ’17-18 are expected to return in 2018-19. Hollingsworth is now the program’s all-time leader for points scored in season by a freshman. Fellow freshmen Jake Ohmer (5.6 ppg), Josh Anderson (7.4 ppg) and Marek Nelson (2.6 ppg) all logged worthy minutes and redshirt-sophomore Moustapha Diagne (0.6 ppg) fought through the rust of having not played in a year-and-a-half.
Guard Lamonte Bearden (11.8 ppg, 3.5 apg) is the program’s only rising senior.
Stansbury will add five new players to the fold, all of whom signed letters of intent in November: Guards Jeremiah Gambrell (Houston, Texas), Dalano Banton (Toronto) and Trevelin Queen (New Mexico Military Institute) and forwards Galen Smith (Bay St. Louis, Miss.) and Matthew Horton (Shelton State Community College).
Jared Savage, a forward who transferred from Austin Peay in 2017, will also be eligible for the upcoming season.
Western Kentucky played the past season with one available scholarship remaining. It will be looking to fill that slot for next year as well as any other departures that may occur over the coming months.
The Hilltoppers will also continue to play a daunting schedule moving forward. Saint Mary’s (28-5) and Wisconsin (15-18) come to E.A. Diddle Arena, WKU travels to Arkansas (23-12) and Missouri State (18-15) and will play in a yet-to-be-announced nonconference tournament against high-major competition.
Taking that approach a year ago, coupled with the team's 27 victories, helped WKU to be in the discussion for an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. And beating Boston College, Southern California and Oklahoma State in the NIT before losing to Utah helped create a new standard in terms of competition expectations.
“I have some high-character guys that have fought, overcame a lot of things and put themselves in this position,” Stansbury said Tuesday. “We’re disappointed we’re still not playing. I like that. That means there’s some expectations, there’s some feelings – how good we are and how good we can be.”
Western’s 27 wins was the highest-victory total for the program since 2007-08 (29). The 12-win turnaround was the best for a team over two years since the 2000-01 squad won 13 more than the year before.
The Hilltoppers also won at least 14 conference games for the first time since 2008-09 (15) and at least nine road games for the first time since claiming 10 in ’07-08. Maybe most-importantly, they played on front of an average of 5,487 fans at Diddle Arena, the program’s highest mark since 2007-08 (5,564).
“We didn’t win the basketball game (Tuesday), but it doesn’t take away or diminish what these young men did this year,” Stansbury said. “I’m proud of all of them. I know it hurts right now, for the three seniors, but these guys can all walk away and hold their heads high. Western Kentucky won because of them and all three of them won individually, too.”
• Western Kentucky’s loss Tuesday was the first under Stansbury in which the team had been winning with five minutes left in the game. The Hilltoppers were up 58-57 on Utah at that point Tuesday and had gone 36-0 in such situations.
• The Hilltoppers went 5-3 against the so-called top six conferences in the NCAA (1-0 vs. the ACC; 1-1 vs. the Pac-12; 1-0 vs. the Big XII; 1-0 vs. the American; 1-1 vs. the Big Ten. 0-1 vs. the Big East). They didn’t face a team from the SEC this year.
• Hollingsworth finished his first season at WKU with 506 points. He and Thompson (517) became the 27th and 28th players in program history to score at least 500 points in a single season.
• Thompson played 1,354 minutes this season, a new program record. Brett MCNeal (1,326) is now second.
• The Hilltoppers finished the year as the 10th-best shooting team in program history, finishing at 49.2 percent from the field.
• Western’s 2,979 points fell 10 points shy of outscoring the 1986-87 team, the highest-scoring team in program history.
• The team’s 1,075 made shots also fell short of the ’86-87 team that made 1,171.
• WKU’s 515 assists were the third-most in a single Western season. The ’86-86 team had 611.
• Western made 623 free throws and attempted 869, the third- and fourth-most ever in a single WKU season.
• Finishing with 140 blocks (third) and 271 steals (five) made the 2017-18 team one of the five best in those categories in program history.
• The Tops will begin next season having made at least one 3 in 976 straight games.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop