Coming up short for the second consecutive year in last years C-USA title game left many Hilltopper fans baffled. The same thing had happened the year before, and that team had more talent than the first. Top 10 recruit Charles Bassey stunned the country by choosing WKU, Taveion Hollingsworth was back for his sophomore year along with Josh Anderson. LaMonte Bearden was back for a senior campaign alongside graduate transfer Desean Murray. Not to mention a talented recruiting class behind Bassey. There was one player who was missing, the glue guy as most would say, Justin Johnson. The home state kid wore his heart on his sleeve every time he touched the floor. With the talent increase but confusing results, WKU looked lost without Johnson, who graduated and plays professionally in Italy. Just basing it off the first two games of the season thus far, it looks as if head coach Rick Stansbury, who fought plenty of roster turnover this offseason, has found his guys; both coming via transfer. Carson Williams and Cameron Justice. These two helped lead the way to victories over Tennessee Tech and Austin Peay.
Against Tennessee Tech in the Hilltopper’s opener Williams immediately showed his versatility. The 6’5 230 pound junior has been learning Stansbury’s style for a year now, transferring from Northern Kentucky before last season. In his first official appearance in Diddle Arena, Williams put up 16 points on 60% shooting to go with 9 boards, one dime, two steals and two blocks. He showed hustle on every play, crashing the glass to beat defenders for a board. Justice also proved to be a reliable shooter, knocking down two threes on his way to 15 points. Against Austin Peay Justice shot 8-10 from the floor including 5 three pointers to way of 22 points. Williams posted a modest 12-6-4 stat line in the same game. While not the two most talented players, both excel in their own areas. Justice is a knockdown shooter whereas Williams is a physical matchup for anyone who shows respectable offense and defense.
Of course, Charles Bassey returned for a sophomore season in hopes of boosting his draft stock as well as leading the Hilltoppers to a C-USA title and ultimately a run in March Madness. Bassey scored 16 and 10 respectively in the two opening games while pulling down 9 and twelve boards in the contest. With one double-double already he looks to has started where he left off last year. While the offense has a hard time finding Bassey inside (Not another year of this…) he looked solid in both contests. He had trouble finding a rhythm and getting tough shots to fall. IMO Bassey provides his value on the defensive end of the floor with 3 blocks and a steal already this season. He has put on muscle and looks the part, showing uber athleticism. He did go down early in the Austin Peay game but returned shortly after. This is where WKU could face problems. If Bassey deals with foul trouble or injuries, they will be shorthanded at the position. Matthew Horton and freshman Isaiah Cozart would replace Bassey if need be, but it doesnt look to be in Stansbury’s immediate plans. Horton did not appear in either game, but Cozart showed promise in limited minutes, scoring a bucket in each as well as showing physicality and looking the part on a D1 team.
Guard play should be the strength on this team by the end of the year. Given that Kenny Cooper has yet to be cleared by the NCAA to play this year, it allows experimentation of lineups featuring Hollingsworth, Justice, freshman Jordan Rawls, Jared Savage and Josh Anderson. Hollingsworth, Savage and Justice have recieved the starts thus far. Hollingsworth has been the primary PG when Rawls is not in the game. While he is better suited to play off ball, he demonstrated his passing ability with several behind the back and no look passes in the opener. Against APSU he found his rhythm offensively, scoring 21 points. He knocked down two threes and attacked driving lanes and getting to the free throw line where he was 9/10. He also grabbed 7 boards and 3 assists. Savage has looked good defensively but his 20% 3 point percentage certainly leaves room for improvement. The best part about this lineup is the pressure in forces on top. The long wingspans and help defense clog up all passing lanes, making it difficult for their opponents to get into a rhythm. Rawls went for 8 points and 5 assists Saturday, taking 4 shots and hitting 3 of them, including two threes late in the game. He looks to takeover this team at the PG position whether it be this year or next.
The Hilltoppers look to stay on course on a trip to Richmond this Friday to face the Eastern Kentucky Colonels. EKU runs a fast paced offense that focuses on getting lots of shots up, so this should give us an idea for how WKU can control their pace while in a true road environment. Until then the #FreeKennyCooper train will be on the lookout and hoping to add another big threat to this Western backcourt.