Two glaring weaknesses were on display during Western Kentucky’s rocky 2018-19 season.
“We did not pass the ball well, and we didn’t always shoot it well,” coach Rick Stansbury said Wednesday at Indian Hills Country Club.
The Hilltoppers turned the ball over last season on 19.6 percent of their possessions. That ranked No. 254 of 353 Division I squads, according to KenPom.com metrics.
And the team had an effective field-goal percentage of 49.9 percent, ranking 213th.
Those struggles contributed to an offense that averaged 71.4 points per game – down significantly from the 78.4 ppg scored by WKU’s 2017-18 team.
The Toppers went 20-14, posting a handful of impressive wins. The team also took some bad losses and fell for a second straight year on a poor shooting night in the Conference USA Tournament title game.
“The two things I knew we had to add to this team, we had to add some guys that can pass the ball better and jump up and make a shot,” Stansbury said.
Stansbury addressed those needs with the offseason additions of college guards Kenny Cooper and Camron Justice. WKU signed both the Lipscomb transfer Cooper and IUPUI transfer Justice last month.
As a junior in 2018-19, Cooper averaged 9.8 points, 4.5 assists, 3.5 rebounds and two steals on a 29-win Lipscomb team. He also shot a career-best 36 percent from 3-point range.
Over his three years with the Bisons, Cooper averaged 8.9 ppg with 381 career assists against 238 turnovers. He also has 184 career steals and ranked 44th in the nation this past season in steals rate, according to KenPom.
In talking about Cooper, Stansbury highlighted road wins Lipscomb scored in 2018-19. The Bisons beat five KenPom top-90 squads (Texas Christian, Liberty, Davidson, North Carolina-Greensboro and North Carolina State) away from home.
“I base teams on who can go on the road and win,” Stansbury. “That starts with the point guard.”
The question concerning Cooper is whether he’ll be immediately eligible for the Hilltoppers in 2019-20. The 6-foot Nashville native hasn’t yet earned an undergraduate degree, so he won’t arrive this summer at WKU as a grad transfer.
Stansbury and his staff are petitioning the NCAA to allow Cooper to play his senior season in 2019-20, rather than having to sit a year-in-residence and take the floor in 2020-21.
Lipscomb coach Casey Alexander left recently to coach crosstown rival Belmont. That coaching move should help the Tops’ case when it comes to Cooper earning immediate eligibility.
Should Cooper be declared eligible, he’ll be WKU’s most logical choice next year for a starting point guard. The Hilltoppers don’t have any natural point guards returning from last year, though four-star Class of 2020 commit Jordan Rawls is expected to reclassify to 2019 and join the team this season.
“We feel good about (Cooper) applying for his waiver and we feel good about the waiver,” Stansbury said. “These kids nowadays, these waivers, they pass them out like Halloween candy a little bit.
“There are some other mitigating factors in his situation too. So we feel really good about him.”
WKU will be the third stop in Justice’s college career.
The Hindman native signed with Vanderbilt out of high school, then left the Commodores midway through his sophomore season. He was interested in WKU, Stansbury said, but ended up in Indianapolis at IUPUI.
“When he left Vanderbilt two years ago, he wanted to come here then,” Stansbury said. “We didn’t have a scholarship.”
Justice, a 6-foot-3 guard, was a Second Team All-Horizon League performer in 2018-19 for the Jaguars. He averaged 18.6 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.3 steals per game and hit 90 3-pointers for the year.
Stansbury spoke about Justice’s prep career at Knott County Central High School, during which he scored 3,588 points and made 393 3-pointers – both third-most in Kentucky boys’ hoops history.
Justice was named 2015 Kentucky Mr. Basketball. He’ll be one of three players next year at WKU to have earned that award, alongside forward Carson Williams (2016) and guard Taveion Hollingsworth (2017).
Justice adds to the Hilltoppers’ depth in the backcourt, where Hollingsworth and Josh Anderson return as juniors. He also joins rising redshirt senior Jared Savage as another long-range shooting threat.
“When a grad transfer comes available, trust me, everybody in America wants him, especially if he can shoot the basketball,” Stansbury said. “ … He’s got some savvy, got some toughness and he can pass it.”