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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 11 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

Two words: Charles. Bassey.

NCAA Basketball: NIT-Utah vs Western Kentucky Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

2017-18 Record: 27-11 (14-4 Conference USA), NIT Semifinals

Key Returning Players: Taveion Hollingsworth (G So.), Lamonte Bearden (G Redshirt Sr.), Josh Anderson (G So.)

Key Losses: Justin Johnson, Darius Thompson, Dwight Coleby

Key Newcomers: Charles Bassey (No. 6, 247 Sports Composite), Dalano Banton (No. 92, 247 Sports Composite), Jeremiah Gambrell, DeSean Murray (Grad Transfer, Auburn), Jared Savage, (R-Jr., Austin Peay)

Much buzz was created when star recruit Mitchell Robinson decided to withdraw from Western Kentucky last season, causing some disappointment among those of us who wanted to watch him completely demolish Conference USA opponents.

However, the Hilltoppers managed to find a good deal of success despite the talented center’s absence.

Indeed, WKU went on to win 27 games, led largely by forward Justin Johnson. Ultimately, the Hilltoppers finished third in the conference—behind only Middle Tennessee and Old Dominion—before falling to Marshall in a hotly-contested C-USA Title Game.

After receiving a 4 seed in the NIT, WKU went on to play in the semifinals in Madison Square Garden, upsetting USC and Oklahoma State in the process. Though the Hilltoppers lost to eventual runner-up Utah, it was still a successful finish to the season, leaving onlookers wondering what this team could have accomplished with Robinson on the roster.

Key Non-Conference Games

If Western Kentucky wants to build a case for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid, their non-conference schedule will afford them many opportunities for high-profile wins.

With two solid Power 5 opponents (Washington and Wisconsin), a tough SEC road environment, and two perennial mid-major powers on the docket, one can anticipate a challenging and potentially rewarding opening to the season for the Tops.

Nov. 6 @ Washington
Dec. 8 @ Arkansas
Dec. 19 @ Belmont
Dec. 22 vs. Saint Mary’s
Dec. 29 vs. Wisconsin

Three Things to Watch

Stansbury’s recruiting

By now, there’s no denying that Western Kentucky recruits better than almost any other mid-major team out there. Stansbury is well-known as a master recruiter, and the ability to get Charles Bassey on the team this year is the latest example of his skill. That same skill was once again made evident a few days ago, as WKU received a commitment from 2020 four-star center Nick Ongenda.

Now, all eyes will be on WKU’s staff as they attempt to continue their success in this area. Followers of this team will no longer be keeping up with simply on-court performances. Fans have grown accustomed to paying attention to recruiting news like no other mid-major team does. Clearly, paying great attention to college basketball recruiting is a habit exercised at all levels of hoops in Kentucky.

How will the offense cope?

Much credit is due to Justin Johnson and Darius Thompson, two incredibly crucial players who helped WKU’s offense thrive last season, even in Robinson’s absence. Indeed, the Hilltoppers possessed one of the country’s best, most efficient offenses last year. And now, the two most important guys to that success are gone.

Now, the onus will be on guys like Hollingsworth, Bearden, and Bassey to fill their void. Previous seasons illustrate that both Hollingsworth and Bearden can compete with their now-departed teammates. If WKU would like to make the jump to the NCAA Tournament, Hollingsworth and Bearden will both need to increase their scoring numbers.

Marshall and Old Dominion

As far as I’m concerned, only two teams in Conference USA will be able to contend with the Hilltoppers for the league title this year: Marshall and Old Dominion. The Monarchs return their two highest scorers from a team that won 15 conference games a year ago while Marshall is receiving much attention following Jon Elmore’s efforts to take them to their first NCAA Tournament in over three decades.

It seems as if league coaches also feel this way, as the conference’s preseason poll had only WKU and Marshall receiving first-place votes (Old Dominion came in third). These two opponents will have experienced squads to go up against the raw talent that Stansbury has assembled, giving us what will surely be a fun battle for C-USA supremacy.

X Factor

It’s Charles Bassey. Duh. Last season, the Mitchell Robinson saga left the Hilltoppers without a player who surely would have been one of the most impactful in program history, as he decided to forego college to prepare for the NBA Draft on his own. Now, we will finally get a chance to see what a high-caliber player will look like on this WKU team.

This time around, Stansbury has drawn another talented big man to Bowling Green, and there’s not a person alive who doesn’t think WKU has the Conference USA Rookie of the Year in their midst.

After all, Bassey is the No. 6 recruit in the country (according to 247 Sports); naturally, his combination of both size and athleticism would spell trouble for teams at all levels. When placed up against Conference USA opposition, Bassey should be able to easily have his way on the court.

If he’s playing, WKU should be dancing.