Hilltoppers defeat Southern Miss 70-59

Western Kentucky guard Taveion Hollingsworth shoots during WKU’s 70-59 win over Southern Miss on March 15 during the Conference USA Tournament semifinals at The Star in Frisco, Texas.

As the nation’s attention turned over the last week toward March Madness, Western Kentucky’s basketball program sat home once again.

For the second straight year, the Hilltoppers came up one game shy of the Big Dance, losing 62-56 to Old Dominion on March 16 in the Conference USA title game. It followed a one-point championship game loss to Marshall in 2018.

WKU’s season began with high expectations of punching an NCAA ticket for the first time since 2013.

Coach Rick Stansbury’s squad enjoyed marquee nonconference wins and earned a No. 2 seed to the C-USA tourney – the Toppers’ best in five years as a league member.

But WKU took 14 losses, including some bad ones. The Hilltoppers also had off-court drama, including academic issues, arrests and player departures.

Athletic director Todd Stewart discussed the 2018-19 WKU basketball season with the Daily News last week in his office. He called the year “really unique.”

“I think there were a number of positives and a number of things to feel really good about,” Stewart said. “But certainly, there were some negatives, too, and some disappointments along the way.

“We had many goals as a program. We hit some of those goals but there’s no question that we fell short of the highest goals we had.”

Here’s more of what Stewart had to say about both Hilltopper and C-USA basketball.

On a turbulent season

WKU was picked last fall to win Conference USA.

The Tops returned budding star Taveion Hollingsworth, talented wing Josh Anderson and point guard Lamonte Bearden. Transfer Jared Savage was also able to play after sitting out the 2017-18 season.

The attention-grabbing piece was Charles Bassey. The five-star center reclassified into the Class of 2018 and enrolled last summer at WKU.

The talent was there for the Hilltoppers, but issues popped up before the season began.

“I really do think that to be honest, we lost the preseason,” Stewart said.

First, the team learned Bearden was academically ineligible for WKU’s first nine games due to issues from the 2018 spring semester.

A newcomer, junior college guard Trevelin Queen, was kicked off the team in September after clashing with coaches and program personnel. Another newcomer, graduate transfer forward Desean Murray, left in December.

Then, there were the team’s legal run-ins. The week before the regular season began, Anderson was arrested for disorderly conduct, and Hollingsworth and Murray were both cited for marijuana possession.

Anderson and Hollingsworth were suspended for one exhibition game apiece. Their first game on the court together was Nov. 6 in the season opener at then-No. 25 Washington.

Murray didn’t make the trip to Seattle because he was suspended after his citation.

“We go into the Washington game and our starting guard tandem has not played a game together,” Stewart said. “That’s not ideal.”

Later in the season, forward Marek Nelson was arrested in December and charged with a DUI.

Off-court issues coincided with inconsistent nonconference results.

WKU earned statement victories at home vs. Saint Mary’s and then-No. 15 Wisconsin, both of whom made the NCAA Tournament. The Hilltoppers beat West Virginia on a neutral court and won at Arkansas.

But WKU also lost at Indiana State and Missouri State and took a home loss to Troy, which went 12-18 and fired its coach.

A home defeat to Florida International on Jan. 17 – the third straight where WKU blew a double-digit lead – dropped the Hilltoppers to 8-9 overall and 1-3 in C-USA.

From that point forward, the Toppers played better basketball, winning 12 of their final 17 games to finish 20-14.

“That was not a good place to be for any reason, but particularly based on what the preseason expectations were,” Stewart said of WKU’s record after the FIU loss. “I do think a number of teams may have shut it down at that point, may not have had the resolve to overcome that.

“That’s what I’m really proud of this team for … sticking together, really coming together as a group probably better than had at any time during the year and finishing the way they did.”

On coming up short of a title

WKU put itself in position to play for a Conference USA Tournament title with two strong defensive efforts.

The Hilltoppers limited North Texas to 16 first-half points March 14 in a 67-51 C-USA quarterfinal victory. The next day, WKU clamped down on Southern Mississippi’s efficient offense for a 70-59 semifinal victory.

Stansbury’s squad put forth another solid defensive effort in the championship game against Old Dominion, holding the Monarchs to 64 points.

Offensive issues ended the season, though. WKU shot 34.6 percent from the field – 26.7 percent the second half – in a six-point loss.

“I thought we competed our asses off in that Old Dominion game,” Stewart said. “I thought we played hard. ... We just didn’t make shots.

“But I mean there was no lack of effort, no lack of preparation. They were locked in and ready to play and played hard.”

WKU has won four Conference USA Tournament games over the last two seasons but hasn’t captured the trophy. The Tops’ last tourney title came in the Sun Belt Conference, which WKU won in 2013.

The program’s NCAA Tournament drought is its longest of the modern era. The Hilltoppers made 22 appearances from 1960-2013 but have missed out on the event for six years now.

Making the NCAA Tournament is tough for a team in WKU’s position. No C-USA team has earned an at-large NCAA berth under the league’s current alignment, meaning a team’s hopes for making the tourney rely on winning the league tournament.

“It’s hard to win championships,” Stewart said. “But that’s what this program’s about and that will always be our goal.”

On Stansbury’s tenure

Stansbury has led WKU’s program for three seasons now. He inherited a roster after the 2015-16 that didn’t return any guards from the previous year and went 15-17 in his first season.

Over the last two seasons, Stansbury’s teams have gone a combined 47-25. Both squads defeated teams from high-major conferences, finished in the top three of the C-USA standings and earned spots in the league title game.

The Hilltoppers are still looking for their first conference regular-season or tournament title under the Battletown native.

“If you look at it three years ago and where it is now, I think he’s done a great job,” Stewart said of Stansbury. “We haven’t won a conference championship. We haven’t been to an NCAA Tournament.

“Obviously, those are the ultimate goals. But we’ve been very close.”

Stansbury’s teams have also drawn crowds to E.A. Diddle Arena. This year’s team set the mark for best per-game attendance since the building’s 2002-03 renovation with an average of 5,809 fans over its 14 home games.

That came after WKU averaged 5,487 fans in 2017-18, fourth-most for the program since the Diddle Arena renovation.

“He’s completely energized our fan base and the community,” Stewart said. “They believe in him and believe in our players. Diddle Arena is a very tough place to play again. I think he deserves a lot of credit for that.”

On the C-USA pod system

Conference USA debuted a new scheduling format this season that split teams into three pods for their four final regular-season games.

The move was intended to help schools build resumes with an eye toward NCAA at-large consideration and seeding.

None of the league’s 14 programs ended the season with hope for an NCAA Tournament at-large spot. Old Dominion, which earned the conference’s automatic bid, was given a No. 14 seed.

“I know it’s well-intentioned,” Stewart said of the bonus play format. “We agreed as a group of coaches and ADs that we would try it for at least two years. We felt like that would be a little better sample size to evaluate it on. Year two would be the exact opposite of year one in terms of where you played everybody.

“We’ll obviously do a deep dive at the spring meetings and talk about it a lot.”

Stewart said if the league agrees to another year of the bonus play system, it needs to re-examine its scheduling practices.

WKU was slotted second in the top five-team pod. It had to open bonus play at first-place ODU, and the Monarchs’ win in that Feb. 23 game basically ensured their C-USA regular-season crown.

“We play at Old Dominion the very first Saturday at noon on Stadium,” Stewart said. “So, in my opinion, the marquee game was buried the first weekend. So I would’ve done that differently.

“I would’ve probably played that game the last Saturday of the season.”

On returning to Frisco for 2 more years

Before the C-USA Tournament began last week, the league announced the event will return to Frisco, Texas, for both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons.

Frisco hosts the event at The Star, a complex that houses shops, restaurants, a hotel, a health care facility and the Dallas Cowboys team headquarters.

Games are played on two temporary courts at the Ford Center, which also hosts Cowboys practices and local high school football games.

This year was the second The Star has hosted the C-USA men’s and women’s hoops tournaments. The events were held in Birmingham, Ala., WKU’s first three seasons in the conference.

Stewart noted the advantages that come with Frisco, including its amenities and the convenience for fans to see all the games under one roof.

But Stewart also noted that “distance is a problem for our fans.” Nashville’s airport offers direct flights to Dallas, but the drive from Bowling Green to Frisco takes about 11 hours.

“If we’re in a championship game on Saturday night and it’s in Birmingham, we have a lot of people in Bowling Green that wake up on Saturday morning and drive to Birmingham,” Stewart said. “They’re not going to wake up Saturday morning and get to Frisco. That’s the biggest negative for me is just the distance.

“But I do think the execution down there has worked pretty well.”

Stewart said WKU would be interested in hosting either the men’s or women’s tournaments.

Conference USA prefers to keep the events in the same city and played at the same time. Bowling Green doesn’t have a suitable second location to host games beyond Diddle Arena, so that eliminates WKU as a tournament host, Stewart said.

“Because we don’t have two courts, we can’t bid, and neither can most of the schools in the league,” Stewart said. “… I think the schools that have the most basketball excitement, if they could host, that would be a good thing.

“But ultimately, we just have to focus on what we can control. I know there’s been frustration on the venue, some frustration on the pod system, some frustration on the TV package and all that. None of those things kept us out on the NCAA Tournament.”{&end}

– Follow Daily News sports reporter Brad Stephens on Twitter @BradBGDN or visit bgdailynews.com.


Bowling Green Daily News sports reporter primarily covering Western Kentucky football and men's basketball.

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