WKU defeats Marshall 91-84

Western Kentucky men’s basketball coach Rick Stansbury looks on during WKU’s 91-84 win over Marshall on Jan. 25 at E.A. Diddle Arena.

For the first stretch of time since returning from a disappointing trip to Frisco, Texas, in March, the Western Kentucky men’s basketball team has been back together.

The Hilltoppers – like most programs across the country – didn’t get a shot at claiming a conference tournament title due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the cancellation of the Conference USA Tournament on March 12 and later the NCAA Tournament. Recently, several key pieces from that squad have returned to The Hill and have begun workouts.

“First off, it was just good to get everybody back. That’s our comfort zone as coaches and as players. That’s our lives,” WKU men’s basketball coach Rick Stansbury said in a Zoom conference with reporters Tuesday. “Never in the history of my 40 years – whatever it’s been – are you away from your players and are you away from the gym for almost four months. Just to get the guys back in here, give them a little structure, give them somewhere to go – for about three months, they weren’t able to do a lot.

“ ... Again, it’s still a long time until whenever it is (we play) – we hope it’s November – but I think the biggest thing was just getting everybody back right now, getting everybody around each other and us just kind of gradually bringing them along with a little basketball. It’s been positive for everybody.”

The team returned to campus July 9, just days after the second wave of athletes – the women’s soccer team, the volleyball team and the remainder of the football team that saw its first group come back June 8 – came back. The school announced Monday its only student-athlete – a women’s soccer player – to test actively positive for COVID-19.

Stansbury’s time away was spent taking quarantine seriously at his home in the country, as his mother-in-law, who is in her 80s, was staying with his family. He said after about the first month, he started watching Netflix to help pass the time while he wasn’t traveling or with the team. He never knew “The Office” existed before quarantining, but now says it “was a great show.” He said he also watched “Stranger Things,” “Outer Banks” and “Breaking Bad,” which he said was “probably one of my favorite ones.”

“In my whole life, my whole career – whole life – I had never watched a Netflix show. I had heard about them. I knew our guys watched them. I had never watched one show,” Stansbury said. “ ... I got to watching Netflix for the first time in my life and grandma – sometimes we’d start there at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and go all night and go to bed at 6 o’clock the next morning because there was no going nowhere.”

“ ... We would start watching it, then once you get watching one show, that next one comes and you can just sit there and keep watching and watching and watching.”

Stansbury said his team has not been able to scrimmage or have any kind of contact drills yet, and workouts have been limited to four players at a time.

While disappointed by the abrupt ending to the 2019-20 season, Stansbury is hoping his returning players – WKU brings back 67 percent of its minutes played from last season, which includes star center Charles Bassey, who is expected to be healthy when full practices resume, according to the coach – will learn from the experience.

“I do feel like there’s some appreciation now for the opportunities we have, the abilities we’ve been blessed with and the opportunities to compete and get back,” Stansbury said. “Sometimes it takes more experienced guys to understand that. Sometimes when you’re younger you take everything for granted. Now, like I said, we have enough experience mixed in with this bunch. There’s some guys who understand some different things and have been through a lot.”t

That group returns Taveion Hollingsworth, Carson Williams, Josh Anderson, Jordan Rawls and Bassey, who all started at least 10 games last year for the 20-10 team. The Hilltoppers will have Lipscomb transfer Kenny Cooper eligible this year, after he was deemed ineligible midway through last season and was unable to play at all. WKU also signed Kevin Osawe, a junior college transfer from Vincennes University and Davidson transfer Luke Frampton to join incoming freshman Dayvion McKnight and Kylen Milton.

“You can’t teach (experience). Only time can cure it,” Stansbury said. “You’ve heard me talk about experience many a time. It’s the first time we have a lot of experience coming back. With that experience, we have good players with that experience. It’s a little different if you’ve got some guys that are experienced and not as good of players as you’d like to have, but we have good players with experience and a different mixture of all of them.

“ ... There is some experience and we like our mixture of young guys, we like those guys coming in, but I think the biggest thing as a coach that you really like – you have good players, but I couldn’t ask for more as people. The character and the work ethic these guys have right here – I’ve had some good groups. This is definitely the best group from that standpoint.”{&end}

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