During Monday’s weekly radio show, Western Kentucky coach Rick Stansbury did not hold back.
“This won’t be a one-year flash I can promise you that,” the second-year coach WKU coach, referencing the team’s current 22-7 record. “It’s gonna be consistent. And everybody in and around basketball they understand that. They know Western Kentucky’s here to stay.
“They know as we go through this league in the future we will always be a team they talk about right from the get-go. Right now it’s Middle Tennessee. That’s the team. But you can bet Western Kentucky will always be in people’s thoughts and minds that if you’re gonna go through this league you better have to get through Western Kentucky – that’s gonna happen.”
Stansbury has helped orchestrate one of the best turnarounds in program history from one year to the next. The 2007-08 and 2004-05 teams were the last two to see at least a seven-win improvement from the season before. Should Stansbury guide his squad to at least one more victory this year the 2017-18 Hilltoppers will have won eight more games than the team before them – that’s the largest difference since the 2000-01 team went +13.
Of course, Stansbury’s first team crumbled to a 15-17 record in his first year as he tried to retool and reshuffle a program with hardly any returning players. But none of those early pitfalls deterred the former Mississippi State coach in his efforts to make WKU basketball one of the elite programs in the nation once again.
“When we came back here, I believed in Western Kentucky. I believed in the tradition here,” he said. “We didn’t come back based on how it had been or what it was. I believed I knew what it could be.
“Didn’t have to talk to anybody. I have a feel for it. I have a feel for what this place used to be. And even if I didn’t have a feel for it, why can’t you get it there?”
Western Kentucky is clearly trending in the right direction, but still has work to do to consistently be considered among the nation’s so-called mid-major elites – like Gonzaga, Wichita State, Xavier, Saint Mary’s and Middle Tennessee, just to name a few. The Hilltoppers are squarely on the bubble this season to make it into the NCAA Tournament and in all likelihood would be wise to win next week’s Conference USA tournament in order to get back to the big dance for the first time since 2013.
Winning Thursday at No. 24 Middle Tennessee and then Saturday at Alabama Birmingham would be a major step forward. Those victories would give WKU a league title for the first time since 2008-09.
“You got two games left, we got two really good opponents, Middle Tennessee and UAB. We know what we’re playing for,” Stansbury said. “We’re going to the best team in the league in Middle Tennessee and we know it’s not gonna be easy. But I know our guys will be ready and be excited to play.”
Nick King was unstoppable Jan. 20 inside E.A. Diddle Arena.
“He’s a terrific player,” Stansbury said. “I felt like then he was the total difference in the game. He had nine points he scored when the shot clock was about to go off. That’s huge, especially when you have a one-possession game. We can’t allow that this time. We gotta be better there – and we will be.”
A 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward, King played in just seven games last year for Alabama, scoring a total of 23 points and grabbing 20 rebounds. With Middle Tennessee he’s averaging 21.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per contest.
In the Blue Raiders’ 66-62 win at WKU in January, the Memphis, Tenn., native went off for 28, 16 of which came in the second half.
“We didn’t play our best game the first time here. And still with 20 seconds to go it’s 62-61. We got a chance,” Stansbury said. “King scored 20 points with 10 seconds and less on the shot clock. Nine of those points came as (shot clock) buzzer-beaters. That ain’t gonna happen this time. That ain’t happening.
“We know he’s a load and he’s a terrific player. He’s a great player. But that stat’s not gonna happen again.”
A product of Memphis East High School, King played two years at Memphis before transferring and sitting out a season at Alabama. He averaged a modest 5.9 points and four rebounds with the Tigers.
Stansbury compared the versatile forward to WKU’s own Dwight Coleby in the sense no one knew what to expect from either during their final eligible year. Coleby was a reserve at Kansas last season with not many eye-popping numbers to go next to his name.
King, like Coleby at Western, has fit right into the system at Middle – and flourished.
“I think there’s one thing that’s been constant in their program. They got some toughness. I think they defend with toughness consistently. And they’ve had a go-to guy that just gets them buckets in King,” Stansbury said. “They didn’t know what to expect out of him. He was a non-productive player at Alabama. But he’s come into Middle, been really, really productive for ‘em and is one of the top scorers in the conference.”
Stansbury and his staff signed five players to join the roster in 2018-19. On Saturday, five prospects (four high school juniors and one high school senior) visited campus and watched the Tops rock Old Dominion 88-66.
Western’s coach is no longer in scramble mode when it comes to recruiting. And while many may look at what the future holds, Stansbury said the key is what the program has at present.
“The key to recruiting and the key to success is you gotta have continuity. When you lose three guys, you got other guys in your program that are stepping up and ready to take those spots,” he said. “You keep bringing in new guys that you build on. You don’t wanna keep reloading from the top. You like to reload from the bottom if that makes any sense.
“At least when we look on paper we have five, six, seven coming back. That’s good. That’s a good start. And I like those five, six or seven. That’s a good starting place, some guys that have been in your program, the guys who understand some drills and continue to get some pieces that make you better, that make you a little bit better defensively, make you a little tougher. That’s something you gotta have in your program. You gotta have the ability to really defend and play with that edge.”
Lamonte Bearden, Moustapha Diagne, Jared Savage, Taveion Hollingsworth, Josh Anderson, Jake Ohmer and Marek Nelson are all in line to return in 2018-19. Matthew Horton, Trevelin Queen, Galen Smith, Jeremiah Gambrell and Dalano Banton will join them as newcomers.
And Western still has an open roster spot for next year’s roster as it continues to build for seasons to come.
“We’re just gonna go after some good ones. Some guys that can help us keep winning,” Stansbury said. “Good players make good coaches, there’s no secret to it. That’s one thing all good coaches have in common – they have good players. This game’s really not that complicated.
“We need a couple players yet that we’re not supposed to have. Those kind you look up and say, ‘How’d you get him?’ Those are the kinda we gotta have. We need a couple like that. But at least we’re starting off in a much better place going into next year than we did this past year. We’re gradually getting some guys coming back.
BIG DAYS IN DIDDLE
The Hilltoppers played in front of an average of 5,444 fans this season inside E.A. Diddle Arena. A season-high crowd of 7,759 came to watch WKU battle Middle and a season-low crowd of 3,378 witnessed the Tops beat Nicholls State.
While not satisfied, Stansbury came away impressed.
“I will promise you this, Diddle had better crowds this year than over half of the SEC schools. Forget what the SEC schools announce on paper,” he said. “I’m talking about inside that arena, the atmosphere inside that arena is better than over half of ‘em, for sure.”
Western had not had an average of more than 5,000 people attend games since 2008-09 and the 5,444 average this year was the program’s largest since 5,564 came to see the Tops in 2007-08. The 2001-02 team was the last to play in front of an average of more than 6,000.
Among Conference USA teams, WKU ranked fifth in average attendance, but when sorting those numbers to how schools filled their arenas in terms of a percentage toward capacity, Western ranked first at 74.32 percent – 67th nationally.
Stansbury has been the program’s biggest advocate for increased attendance and his efforts began to pay dividends in Year Two.
“We just felt like we gotta find a way, kinda like those coals laying in that snow, you gotta kinda stroke ‘em a little bit,” he said. “We knew that passion was there.”
• Western Kentucky now has an RPI of 54, a KenPom ranking of 55, a BPI of 56, a KPI ranking of 61 and a Sagarin ranking of 74.
• WKU now ranks fifth nationally with 14.7 fouls committed per game, sixth with 425 total fouls, eighth with a field goal percentage of 50.2, 27th with 685 free throws attempted, 33rd in scoring margin (10.1), 37th with 482 free throws made, 51st with 7.4 steals per game, 58th with 216 steals and in scoring offense (79.6 points per game), 66th in turnover margin (1.8), 75th with 349 total turnovers, 84th in field goal percentage defense (42.3 percent) and 87th with 12 turnovers per game.
• The Hilltoppers also rank 339th (out of 351) nationally with 445 total 3-point attempts, 331st with 5.6 made 3s per game, 325th in total 3s made (163), 248th with 9.31 offensive rebounds per game and 213th in free-throw shooting (70.4 percent).
• Johnson now ranks 26th nationally with 7.21 defensive rebounds per game, 33rd with 9.4 rebounds per game, 36th with 272 total rebounds and 55th with 10 double-doubles.
• Coleby ranks 50th nationally with 55 blocks, 52nd with 1.9 blocked shots per game, 67th with nine double-doubles, 89th with 8.1 rebounds per game and 92nd with 235 total rebounds.
• Thompson ranks 25th nationally with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.8, 45th with 36:12 minutes per game, 62nd with 1,050 minutes played, 73rd with 143 assists and 76th with 4.9 assists per game.
• Bearden now ranks 65th nationally with 52 steals and 61st with 1.79 steals per game.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop