Western Kentucky’s basketball team, the third edition from coach Rick Stansbury, started practice Sunday. In about a month they take the floor for a couple exhibitions before opening the season in Seattle.
I, for one, am unapologetically high and will be unforgivingly demanding of said team.
There won’t be any lowered expectations or wait-and-sees from my little corner of the room. I’m all-in, baby, and ready to sink in a fiery ball of wreckage should I steer your hopes and desires the wrong way.
“I don’t know how good our team is gonna be,” Stansbury said last week. “But I like our team.”
Well, Stansbury can give you the humble company line all he wants, but I won’t. I know how good that team is going to be. I’m here to tell you all about them.
For starters, Stansbury’s got some players.
No, not “players” in, like, big-time talent (although he has that, too, but we’ll get to that in a moment). Players as in actual bodies.
How quickly we forget the 2017-18 squad began the season with just seven scholarship athletes. They still started the year 7-2 with a win over a ranked Purdue team.
And when the full squad formed in January – all nine of ‘em – the Tops went on to win 27 games.
You might argue, “yes, that was all nice and fun, but much of that success was due to seniors Justin Johnson, Darius Thompson and Dwight Coleby,” all now gone and making money playing professional basketball somewhere.
You know who isn’t gone? Taveion Hollingsworth. And Josh Anderson. And Lamonte Bearden (he'll be back soon enough, anyway). And role players Jake Ohmer and Marek Nelson and Moustapha Diagne.
Those six young men right there alone would make for a decent little basketball team themselves.
“I’m gonna keep coming back and saying this – I like our people,” Stansbury said. “I think most of you, once you deal with ‘em and interview ‘em and be around ‘em a little bit, you’re gonna get the same feeling that I’ve had. We have good people on this team.
“Does that mean we play good every night? No. Does that mean we’re not gonna throw the ball in the stands? No. Does that mean we’re not gonna miss some easy shots? No. But it has nothing to do with who they are. I’ll take that start and that base and that foundation in putting a team together everyday.”
With that foundation, which also includes Austin Peay transfer Jared Savage who sat out last season (a player Stansbury and staff believe is all-conference caliber), Western has built a juggernaut in waiting with a recruiting class that may turn out to be better than the one that preceded it (the one that received all the national attention).
We all know about Charles Bassey. We’ve written about Mr. Bassey, the 6-foot-11 Nigerian with a solid chance to turn pro after one season on The Hill, quite a lot already.
But maybe you don’t know enough about Galen “Tolu” Smith. Maybe Stansbury didn’t either.
The 6-foot-10, 240-pound forward from Mississippi, by all accounts, had stolen the show in summer workouts before a recent foot injury.
“Sometimes when you recruit big guys, it’s not what they are, it’s what they can be,” Stansbury said. “It’s easy for me to project a (Smith) because that (off-the-court) stuff matches up at the top of the chart. He’s that type of person and I think he has a chance to be a tremendous player.”
Bassey and Smith in your front court is pretty darn good. But you can’t stop there, oh no boy. How about adding Desean Murray? At Auburn last year they called him “Little Charles Barkley.” That’s all. No big deal.
For good measure Western brought in a 6-foot-11 kid from Alabama, Matt Horton, with raw power and size who could be a starting forward at a lot of Division I programs. Instead he'll come in to spell Bassey and Murray – that's quite an option to have off the bench.
That front court good enough for you? How about on the perimeter where Anderson, Hollingsworth, Bearden and Savage roam?
Western also brought in a 6-foot-8 (yes, 6-foot-8) guard who can move and pass with the best of ‘em in Dalano Banton and a Houston-tough point in Jeremiah Gambrell.
Gambrell will be out a few months with a foot injury, but when he returns, watch out.
“One thing we’re gonna miss with (Gambrell) here early for sure is he was a terrific shooter,” Stansbury said. “He could flat shoot that basketball, score a lot of different ways. Quick, really quick, and can shoot it deep.”
Banton, from Toronto, will also come off the bench and has the potential to be a matchup nightmare for the opposition as he continues to develop his physical strength over the course of the season.
“I love his feel,” Stansbury said. “He’s terrific off the ball screen. He can find that next guy off the ball screen. I think he has a chance. I like his potential. I like what he can become.”
At this point I hope you understand just how loaded WKU truly is when all parts are healthy and eligible. There hasn’t been a roster with this much hype in a decade – if not longer.
And we still – still – have not spoken about perhaps the most-important player of all.
Edgar Allen Diddle Arena.
“I believe now the people, and I’m thankful for this, have got behind the team, they believe in the team, they’re seeing some potential with what this team can be. As I said two years ago, if you don’t have a ticket, you need to get one. There’s gonna come a time real soon when there’s not one available. Well that time’s now,” Stansbury said. “That’s what this team wants. I think it helps us all. It makes it more exciting for everybody that’s involved when you have that kind of atmosphere. There’s no question it helps our team. We need all the help we can get.”
Six weeks away from Western Kentucky’s home opener, only a few hundred season tickets remain available. It’s been 15 years since WKU has had that sort of preseason movement on Diddle Arena seats.
Damn you for being so prophetic, coach.
Journalistically I’m charged with remaining even-keeled and viewing things from an honest scope. And it’s for that very reason that I expect this collection of Hilltoppers to be one of the best you’ve seen in a long time.
That’s my expectation, and if it seems like too much to ask, I don’t think Rick Stansbury would have it any other way.
“My goals are the same way every year. My first year when we were just trying to put a team together, our goal was we’re gonna go out and practice and prepare every day to compete for championships,” he said. “I always believe if you play down to expectations it’s what you become.
“I like my people, I like my talents, I like where we’re at going into this season. Knock on wood, avoid key injuries. If we can do all those things I think this team has a chance to be a really good, special team. I like what this team can become. I do.”
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Western Kentucky quarterback Steven Duncan on the 1-4 Hilltoppers: “This team’s really good – we’re really freakin’ good. I believe in every single one of these guys. They’e determined and they’re ready to bounce back. And I am too and I’m ready to help ‘em out and do my job. It is gonna come together. Trust in the process is our thing and it’s gonna come together for us.”
MUSICAL PICK OF THE WEEK
I have no reasoning behind this choice, other than it was one of the first albums I ever owned and still one of my favorites:
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop