Rick Stansbury’s team has Bowling Green buzzing after quite a week in the Bahamas. The trick Wednesday? Live up to the hype.
“Of course we look back on that trip and it was a really good trip for us as a team,” WKU senior forward Justin Johnson said. “But coach always says peaks and valleys. You can’t get too high and you can’t get too low. If you wanna be really successful you gotta just kinda flatline.
“For me, that’s probably a little bit easier for me and some of the older guys, Dwight (Coleby) and Darius (Thompson), because they’ve played at a high level in a lot of good games. So we just try to enforce that in our locker room right now that we got another big one coming up because it’s the next game.”
Western Kentucky (4-2) has won back-to-back games and four of the last five. But the latest two victories were the most-impressive – a 77-73 triumph over then No. 18 Purdue and a thrilling 63-61 upset of Southern Methodist.
It beat Purdue by controlling two 7-foot-2 towers for much of the night and hung tough after trailing SMU for nearly the entire game before Jake Ohmer hit a last-second 3.
Those wins, coupled with an eight-point loss to No. 4 Villanova, gave WKU a fifth-place finish at the Battle 4 Atlantis. Conference USA teams had never finished higher than seventh in the eight-team event and had only recorded one win in nine games before Western’s success.
Now the Tops get to play the next two at home and four of the next six.
“Even though Eastern Kentucky’s a really good team, they’re probably not quite at the level of Purdue or Villanova or SMU is at,” WKU coach Rick Stansbury said. “But again, you look around every night and you say, ‘Well how’d this team beat them?’ It’s because of the mental part of this game. That’s our challenge. That’s our next step, to see where this team responds to.
“It’s easier to get ‘em to respond after getting beat to Villanova and know you got Purdue waiting on you. Then SMU. But, I will say this, I like that we’re back at home. Back at home gives you some energy. Back at home doesn’t ensure anything, but we’d rather play at home than we would on the road. But you gotta have that same focus.”
While Stansbury & Co. continue to wait on word from the NCAA on whether freshman guard Josh Anderson or redshirt-sophomore Moustapha Diagne will ever be eligible this season, the team’s active players proved last week eight is enough. Thompson led the way with 16 points and six assists against Villanova, Johnson had 17 points and nine rebounds against Purdue and Coleby had 12 points and 12 rebounds against SMU.
Ohmer and Taveion Hollingsworth, both freshmen, continue to be consistent scoring threats and redshirt-junior guard Lamonte Bearden appears to be coming out of an early-season slump after a 14-point, 6-assists, 5-steal effort in the Atlantis finale. Freshman forward Marek Nelson and senior guard Tyler Miller have adapted to their role within the system as well.
“We don’t play perfect. By no means are we playing perfect. Not even close to it,” Stansbury said. “But the one thing that’s been consistently there for the most part is our effort. And that’s the one thing we can control. We can’t control taking a bad shot or missing a shot, we can’t control somebody not catching a pass, but one thing we’re in control of is how hard we play. That translates back to defending and rebounding.
“What they did those three days down there in Atlantis is more about heart and character of these young men and being able to do that, especially on that third day.”
Eastern comes to Bowling Green having won three and lost three. The Colonels’ only win against a Division I opponent came Nov. 10 against Rice at home and all three of the team’s losses have been away from Richmond – 85-75 at Mississippi, 80-70 to Prairie View and 83-62 to Eastern Washington, the latter two of which came in Las Vegas, Ind.
Junior forward Nick Mayo leads EKU with 19.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Freshman guard Dedric Boyd (16.2 ppg) and sophomore forward DeAndre Dishman (12.3 ppg) are also scoring in double figures. Eastern ranks 11th nationally with a free-throw percentage of 80.7.
Only Johnson and Miller for Western and Mayo, Dishman, Zach Charles and Asante Gist for Eastern played in last year’s 78-59 Colonels win – the largest margin for EKU in the history of the series.
“They had a really good team last year and we went in there and we wasn’t ready to play. They exposed us,” Johnson said. “We’ll be ready. It’s a different team and I think we’ll be ready to play (Wednesday) night.”
• Eastern and Western have played 156 times in a series dating back to 1914. Western owns a 112-44 advantage and has won 13 in a row in E.A. Diddle Arena dating back to 1978.
• Johnson (1,185 career points) is 31st on the program’s all-time scoring list. Michael Fralix is 30th with 1,203 career points.
• Johnson ranks 60th nationally with nine rebounds per game
• Western Kentucky has made at least one 3 in 944 straight games.
• Coleby ranks eighth nationally with four double-doubles, is 40th with a field goal percentage of 63.3 and is 48th with 3.3 offensive rebounds per game.
• WKU junior guard Lamonte Bearden ranks 29th nationally with 2.5 steals per game, is 34th with 15 total steals.
• The Hilltoppers as a team rank seventh nationally with 13.5 fouls per game and 23rd with 18.5 turnovers forced per game.
• The Hilltoppers as a team also rank 321st with 87 attempted 3s and 305th with 5.7 made 3s per game.
• Western began the week ranked fifth in strength of schedule according to the Sagarin Ratings and sixth in that same category according to Ken Pomeroy.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop