The Western Kentucky men’s basketball team says the time is now to begin another run toward a conference championship.
With eight games remaining in the regular season, the Hilltoppers (12-11, 6-6 Sun Belt Conference) are focused on getting back to playing the level of basketball that won them a league tournament title in 2012.
“That possibility is always there, especially with a coach like coach ‘Harp’ and the guys we have,” junior guard Brandon Harris said, referring to coach Ray Harper. “Now that everybody’s back and strong, practices are competitive now, things are going to start rolling. We’re going to peak right around this time.”
Western Kentucky is alone in fourth place in the league’s East Division. The Tops travel to North Texas for a 7 p.m. game today.
Middle Tennessee is 51⁄2 games in front of WKU for first place in the division, but the Hilltoppers only need to be concerned with climbing into the top five of the league to earn a first-round bye.
That would allow them to avoid having to win four games in four days, which they pulled off last season in Hot Springs, Ark.
“I did put (the standings) on the board last week before we played Troy,” Harper said. “It was just so the guys understood, ‘Guys, we’re right in the middle of this thing. Don’t think because we haven’t played well and we’ve lost some games we probably shouldn’t have, we’re out of it. Let’s hang in there.’
“The only team that’s really separated themselves from everyone else is Middle Tennessee. Everyone else is all bunched together. Now it’s about the next eight games – who’s going to get hot and who’s going to be playing well?”
The first opportunity to start a winning streak begins with reeling North Texas.
The Mean Green (8-16, 3-10 SBC) have lost four straight and are 3-10 in their past 13. UNT, which includes the Sun Belt’s top NBA prospect in forward Tony Mitchell, was a preseason favorite by the league’s coaches but is buried at the bottom of the West Division.
The Hilltoppers beat UNT 70-64 on Dec. 29 in Bowling Green.
“I don’t know if I would say we fear them any more or any less,” Harper said. “We respect them. That needs to be our approach with everyone – fear no one and respect everyone. We definitely respect them.
“It’s predominantly the same basketball team they had last year that lost in the conference championship game (to WKU). I think they’ve gone through some of the same things that we have with injuries and they lost Chris Jones when we played them here. It’s a very good basketball team and one we must be ready to play.”
Point guard Jamal Crook, who returned to the lineup Jan. 31 for the first time since Dec. 16, has also returned to practice at full strength.
The senior’s addition gives Harper almost a full roster – freshman Eddie Alcantara (hamstring) and sophomore Nigel Snipes (ACL) are still out – and has allowed the Hilltoppers to get back practicing with the type of energy they hadn’t seen since early December.
“I feel like we were playing good basketball prior to the time some things happened to us,” Harper said. “Watching us yesterday in practice, I left with a good feeling knowing that we’ve got a chance. We’ve got a chance.”
Addition of Jackson official
Trency Jackson, a 6-foot-2-inch guard who enrolled at Western Kentucky for spring semester, has officially been added to the WKU program.
Jackson will not be eligible until mid-December season and has 11⁄2 years of eligibility left.
“A tremendous athlete,” Harper said. “His M.O. is a tremendous defensive player. Possibly as good of an athlete as I’ve had the opportunity to be around.”
Jackson originally signed with Southern Mississippi out of Wingfield High in Jackson, Miss., but did not qualify academically.
He played one season at Northwest Florida State College before transferring to Texas Tech.
He made 10 starts at TTU after being suspended for a violation of team rules to start the season, then was suspended and declared ineligible to start the second half of the season.
Jackson, currently in the program as a walk-on, gives Harper three new players for 2013-14. The Hilltoppers have two seniors in Crook and center Teeng Akol.
“I’ve never been very good at math,” Harper said. “It’ll work itself out. We got some great students ... so it will be fine.”