Western Kentucky at Marshall 01-17-21

Western Kentucky redshirt senior guard Kenny Cooper (right) drives to the basket Jan. 17 against Marshall’s Taevion Kinsey during WKU’s 69-67 victory in Huntington, W.Va.

Western Kentucky’s two-game sweep of Marshall in its Conference USA-designated rivalry series left the Hilltoppers atop the league’s East Division and with the program’s best start since the 2006-07 season.

WKU will now travel to Murfreesboro, Tenn., for two games against Middle Tennessee at the Murphy Center with a chance to pull ahead in the league standings, but the Hilltoppers are taking things one game at a time. The first game is scheduled for 4 p.m. Saturday, with the rematch slated for 1 p.m. Sunday.

“They all count as one win and they all count as one loss, whether you’re the first-place team, last-place team,” WKU coach Rick Stansbury said. “It’s so early. You’ve got to be able to take them all one at a time and at the end of these 18 games – if we’re able to play 18, or whether it’s 16 or whether it’s 14 – then you’ve got to start counting them up and hope you’ve got enough Ws that it outweighs the Ls and it puts you first place in the league.”

WKU (11-4 overall, 4-2 C-USA) is currently tied with Old Dominion atop C-USA’s East Division standings, but the Monarchs have paused all team-related activities due to positive COVID-19 results among Tier 1 personnel, the school announced Thursday. Due to the pause, the Monarchs’ games against North Texas this weekend have been postponed. MTSU (3-7, 1-3) currently sits tied at the bottom of the division standings with Marshall, and the only team with a worse record across the entire league is UTSA at 1-5.

“We’re just locked in on the bigger picture,” WKU senior guard Josh Anderson said. “Just having last year fresh in our mind and how the previous year ended, we think about that daily and it’s kind of like motivation because we didn’t get the opportunity to play for a championship. That’s definitely motivation for this season, and we’re just looking at the bigger picture. At the end of the day, we just want to win and compete for a championship.”

The Blue Raiders rank last in C-USA in scoring offense at 61.2 points per game, and are at the bottom of the league in both field goal and 3-point percentage. MTSU hasn’t been at full strength for some time, and practiced with all 14 active players on Wednesday for the first time since Dec. 11 – a span of 41 days in which every player had missed at least one week of practice, while six different players have missed a combined 15 games. Thirteen of those were due to COVID-19 protocols.

One of those is 6-foot-2 junior guard Dontrell Shuler, who was averaging a team-best 11.7 points per game through six games. Jordan Davis, a 6-foot-3 guard, is the only other Blue Raider currently scoring in double figures. He averages 10.7 points per game, and Jo’Vontae Millner-Criss, Donovan Sims and DeAndre Dishman all average over seven points per game.

“They’ve got plenty of good players. They’re an experienced team, too. They’ve got a bunch of transfers and when you take them as transfers, you took them because they were a pretty good player and they’ve got five or six guys like that,” Stansbury said. “They’re very, very capable. Missing shots and making shots, it’s a fine line sometimes. Those shots you miss, you pick a night to make them, you have a chance to beat anybody and Middle has that kind of ability.”

Despite its offensive struggles, MTSU has the fifth-best scoring defense in the league, allowing 65.7 points per game, and the best 3-point defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 26.5%. WKU shoots only 32.6% from behind the arc, but is coming off a strong 7 of 11 3-point shooting game in a 69-67 victory at Marshall. Center Charles Bassey and forward Carson Williams combined to shoot 5 of 8 from 3-point range, and had 24 and 16 points, respectively. Bassey was named Lute Olson National Player of the Week and C-USA Player of the Week on Monday.

“I know they’re pretty tough defensively,” WKU redshirt senior guard Kenny Cooper said. “That’s one of the things they pride themselves on, and one of the things we’ve got to do better is take care of the ball and get the ball where it’s needed and so on and so forth. We’ve been very attentive on that, and the better we do that, the better I feel we’ll be as a team.”

Bassey is averaging a team-high 17.6 points and 12.1 rebounds, Taveion Hollingsworth adds 13.9 points per game and Josh Anderson is now in double figures at 10.5 points per game.

WKU leads the series, which dates back to the 1914-15 season, 95-43 and has won back-to-back meetings.

WKU is scheduled to follow this weekend’s series with two games against Old Dominion at E.A. Diddle Arena on Jan. 29-30.

WESTERN KENTUCKY (11-4, 4-2) AT MIDDLE TENNESSEE (3-7, 1-3)

4 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday, Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Probable starters

WESTERN KENTUCKY

Taveion Hollingsworth, g, 6-2, sr. (13.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg); Dayvion McKnight, g, 6-1, fr. (5.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg); Charles Bassey, c, 6-11, jr. (17.6 ppg, 12.1 rpg); Carson Williams, f, 6-5, r-sr. (6.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg); Josh Anderson, g, 6-6, sr. (10.5 ppg, 3.6 rpg).

MIDDLE TENNESSEE

Jordan Davis, g, 6-3, r-jr. (10.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg); Donovan Sims, g, 6-1, sr. (7.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg); Jalen Jordan, g, 6-3, r-jr. (6.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg); Jo’Vontae Millner-Criss, f, 6-6, r-sr. (8.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg); DeAndre Dishman, f, 6-6, r-jr. (7.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg).

Television

ESPN+ Saturday, CBS Sports Network Sunday

Radio

Hilltopper Sports Network

Coaches

Rick Stansbury (93-56, fifth year; 386-222 overall), WKU; Nick McDevitt (22-51, third year; 120-117 overall), Middle Tennessee.

Series record

WKU leads the series 95-43 (The Hilltoppers won the last meeting 69-53 on Jan. 11, 2020, in Murfreesboro, Tenn.).

Last time out

WKU won 69-67 on Sunday at Marshall; Middle Tennessee lost 64-59 on Saturday at Southern Miss.{&end}

– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.