NIT W Kentucky St. Marys Basketball

Western Kentucky men’s basketball coach Rick Stansbury reacts to play during the Tops’ 69-67 win against St. Mary’s in the first round of the NIT on March 17 in Frisco, Texas.

Western Kentucky opened basketball practices ahead of the 2021-22 season last week with a new-look team.

With several key pieces from last year’s team gone, the Hilltoppers are working on establishing the culture early this preseason.

“We’ve got a lot of new pieces. I like my pieces. We’ve just got to put our pieces together, but we’ve made progress. We’ve made progress in these few days we’ve had and we’ve got miles and miles to go,” WKU head coach Rick Stansbury said Wednesday. “Early in practices you’re just trying to establish how you’re going to do things – the effort and the attitude you play with. That’s your foundation always.”

The sixth-year head coach is in a much different position this fall than he was last. Nine players from last year’s roster are no longer with the program, including three starters in center Charles Bassey, guard Taveion Hollingsworth and forward Carson Williams. The Hilltoppers went 21-8 overall in 2020-21 behind the experienced team, with a regular-season Conference USA East Division title and a runner-up finish in the league championship game.

WKU returns three who contributed significantly last season. Guard Josh Anderson elected to return for a fifth year with the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic and point guard Dayvion McKnight is back for his second year, after moving into a starting role early last season. The Hilltoppers also bring back Luke Frampton, who was WKU’s top long-range threat in his role off the bench in his first year after transferring from Davidson.

“When I rolled out last year, practices were different. When I rolled out the first day, everybody knew what was going on, had some built-in toughness that had been developed through a couple years and it was easy,” Stansbury said. “You lose all that now.”

The Hilltoppers brought in two players from high school in Zion Harmon and Elijah Hughey, three from junior colleges in Sherman Brashear, Jamarion Sharp and Darrius Miles and three via the transfer portal from other Division I programs in Keith Williams, Jairus Hamilton and Jaylen Butz.

It’s a new group that came together for the first practice last Monday and has been doing two-a-days since – Stansbury said Wednesday afternoon the team was about 13 practices in.

“It’s been, so far, just trying to set the culture with the way we practice – the energy, the pace, the speed – then working out some little things with players that some of them have done for four years and you’ve never had them before, so all of a sudden I’m trying to maybe correct some things that guy’s done for four years,” Stansbury said. “That’s a lot harder than maybe a guy who’s never done it. Easier to correct a young guy. The old guys sometimes knows which way he’s done it.

“We’ve had to figure that out a little bit, but we’ve made a lot of progress in these days. I like the direction we’re heading. We’ve got a long ways to go, but I like the direction we’re heading. I like our pieces.”

WKU is scheduled to play preseason exhibitions at E.A. Diddle Arena against Campbellsville on Nov. 1 and University of the Cumberlands on Nov. 5, before opening the regular season at home Nov. 9 against Alabama State.{&end}

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