The nonconference slate didn’t end the way Western Kentucky would’ve liked, but despite a 95-60 loss to No. 20 Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Wednesday in its nonconference finale, the Hilltoppers are confident heading into Conference USA play next week.
“I like where our team’s at,” WKU head coach Rick Stansbury said after the loss. “Yeah, we’re disappointed we lost today, but it has nothing to do with the way I feel about my team. Sometimes that ---- just happens. Give them credit – I’m going to keep saying it. Give them credit. ... Sometimes you just, ‘hey,’ you go in there and take a shower and wash it off and put it behind you and forget about it and move on. Today’s one of those days.”
The Hilltoppers finished their nonconference schedule with an 8-5 record, and Wednesday’s game was a late change to the schedule – WKU was originally supposed to play at Austin Peay, but the Governors agreed to push the meeting back a season so the Hilltoppers could play at Rupp.
Of WKU’s five nonconference losses, three were to Power Five teams – the first two were against Minnesota by four points and South Carolina by 11 in the Asheville Championship – one was to then-No. 11 Memphis on the road and the other was to a Buffalo program that’s won the MAC four of the last six years and finished as the runner-up to Ohio last year.
Much of the reason for the confidence comes from its three wins heading into Wednesday’s game at Kentucky, however.
The Hilltoppers throttled Ole Miss 71-48 in a neutral-site game in Atlanta during the Holiday Hoopsgiving event. After dismantling Division III Centre College in a mid-week matchup, WKU took down Louisville for the first time since 2008.
“I like our team, I like the way we’ve been playing, I like where we’re at, I like our chemistry, I like our rhythm. I’m not going to let today’s game dampen anything about our team – how I feel about them and how we’ve been performing,” Stansbury said. “What they’ve done against Ole Miss on the big stage and against Louisville last week, that tells you the potential of our team. I’m not going to let today take away from any of that.”
WKU had a poor offensive night Wednesday, including just 3-of-20 shooting from 3-point range, but still has four players averaging double-digit scoring to give the team 77.2 points per night.
Jairus Hamilton leads that group with 15.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, while Dayvion McKnight adds 13.5 points and 6.7 rebounds, Camron Justice adds 13.2 points and Josh Anderson averages 11.7 points – he missed three games due to COVID-19 protocols. Luke Frampton is just outside that group with 9.2 points per game despite shooting poorly at the beginning of the year – he was 1-of-19 from 3-point range to start the season.
Perhaps the biggest boost has come from the biggest player – 7-foot-5 center Jamarion Sharp. The first-year Hilltopper came from the junior college ranks, and has averaged 8.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and five blocks per game, while altering several other attempts from the opposition because of his presence.
The Hilltoppers will now prepare for the C-USA portion of their schedule, which starts with a road swing to Hattiesburg, Miss., and Ruston, La., to face Southern Miss on Dec. 30 and Louisiana Tech on Jan. 1. It’ll be a good early test for WKU, which was picked third in the league’s preseason poll after falling in the C-USA championship the last three times it was played. Louisiana Tech was picked second in the preseason poll, while UAB was predicted to finish first.
“We’re very confident in our team,” Anderson said Wednesday. “I feel like as long as we just have a lot of energy on offense and defense, we can compete with anybody in the country.”