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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 12 Western Kentucky

The Hilltoppers are the clear favorite in CUSA

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Western Kentucky Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

2018-19 record: 20-14 (11-7)

Key Returners: Charles Bassey (C, So.), Taveion Hollingsworth (G, Jr.), Josh Anderson (G, Jr.), Jared Savage (G/F, R-Sr.)

Key Losses: Lamonte Bearden (graduation), Tolu Smith (transfer), Marek Nelson (transfer)

Key Newcomers: Camron Justice (G, Gr. via IUPUI), Kenny Cooper (G, Sr. via Lipscomb), Carson Williams (F, R-Jr. via Northern Kentucky), Jordan Rawls (G, Fr.)

It is hard not to view last season as a disappointment for Western Kentucky.

Following a trip to the NIT final four the previous season, the Hilltoppers brought back a talented core and added a five-star center in Charles Bassey, Expectations were high, and the team showed flashes of what it could be with wins over Arkansas, Saint Mary’s and Wisconsin in non-conference play. But the Hilltoppers were never able to reach their full potential, sputtering to a 20-14 record and a tie for second place in Conference USA during the regular season, before eventually falling to Old Dominion in the conference tournament championship.

Yet despite last season’s disappointment, the mindset entering this season is still the same for the Hilltoppers: expect to win, and win a lot.

The main reason for that optimism is Bassey’s return. After averaging 14.6 points per game and 10.0 rebounds per game as a freshman, Bassey decided to withdraw from the NBA Draft and return for his sophomore season. Three starters from last year’s squad will join him. Taveion Hollingsworth, Josh Anderson and Jared Savage all averaged at least 12 points per game. Add in transfers Camron Justice (18.6 ppg last season at IUPUI) and a waiver-pending Kenny Cooper (9.8 ppg and 4.5 assists per game at Lipscomb), and the Hilltoppers have the makings of the deepest and most talented team in the conference.

On paper, the CUSA Championship should be WKU’s to lose this season, as long as the squad plays to its potential. However, that has been an issue the past two seasons, as the Hilltoppers have boasted above-average talent but produced average results. Whether or not head coach Rick Stansbury can maximize his squad’s talent may be the biggest storyline in the conference this season.

Key non-conference games

As has been the case during the past couple seasons, the Hilltoppers will have their fair share of chances to start building their tournament resume early in non-conference play. The team will compete in the Paradise Jam along with Cincinnati, Grand Canyon, Nevada, Valparaiso and others. Directly following the tournament, WKU will face Louisville in a neutral site at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, and also has dates scheduled against Arkansas and Belmont at home, and Rhode Island away.

Nov. 22-25 Paradise Jam (Bowling Green, Illinois State/Cincinnati, TBD)
Nov. 29 vs. Louisville (in Nashville)
Dec. 7 vs. Arkansas
Dec. 21 at Rhode Island
Dec. 28 vs. Belmont

Three things to watch

Who Plays Point Guard?

The Hilltoppers have a lot of players who can score, but the question is, who will set them up? Gone is Lamonte Bearden, last season’s senior starting point guard who led the team in assists. His departure leaves a big hole for the team to fill. Hollingsworth is capable of handling point guard duties, but is better suited off the ball. Josh Anderson is lethal at attacking the rim, but is not the best facilitator (although he showed signs of improvement last season).

Ideally, the player who steps into Bearden’s spot is Cooper. Cooper led Lipscomb in assists last season, assisting on 30 percent of the team’s baskets made. He is also a solid defender, finishing second in the ASUN in steals. Compare Bearden and Cooper’s stats last season, and they are almost identical.

The only hiccup in this plan is the fact that Cooper still hasn’t been cleared by the NCAA to play this season. Transfer rules say Cooper must sit out a year. but WKU has filed for a waiver for Cooper and are confident they will get it. However, if the plan doesn’t following through, the Hilltoppers may be forced to rely on a point guard by committee, or turn to incoming freshman Jordan Rawls.

Three-point shooting woes

The Hilltoppers shot 32.7 percent from behind the three-point line last season, good for ninth in conference and 263rd overall. Overall, the team scored only 24.6 percent of its points from behind the arc, which ranked 344th in the nation.

WKU addressed its three-point shooting problems during the offseason by adding transfers Justice and Cooper. Justice drained 90 three-pointers last season at IUPUI, which would have led WKU (Savage led the Hilltoppers with 80 made three-pointers). Cooper is also a capable shooter, converting on 42 percent of his threes in conference play last season.

Don’t expect the Hilltoppers to be world-beaters from beyond the arc, but they should be much improved with the additions of Justice and Cooper.

Who backs up Bassey?

As good as Bassey is, he cannot play 40 minutes every night. Eventually he will tire or get into foul trouble. So who spells him when he takes a seat? Going into the summer, the answer appeared to be Tolu Smith. The rising sophomore shined as Bassey’s primary backup last season, and at times looked as though he could eventually be as good as his freshman counterpart. However, a surprising announcement to transfer in early August suddenly left the Hilltoppers thin in the front court.

The good news for WKU is that senior center Matt Horton, who originally intended to transfer, rejoined the team and will offer a veteran interior presence off the bench. Horton played limited minutes last season, but showed the ability to be a capable backup.

In addition to Horton, the Hilltoppers could also turn to freshman forward Isaiah Cozart, who appears to be a solid rebounder.

The X-Factor

Jordan Rawls

Rawls was originally a nationally ranked recruit in the 2020 class, but reclassified to join the Hilltoppers this season.

If Cooper is not cleared to play this season, Rawls could be thrust into the spotlight early as the only true remaining point guard on the roster. Even if Cooper is cleared, Rawls could still see significant time as a backup.

During tournament time, point guard play is crucial for success, and every good team needs not only a good starter, but also a serviceable backup. If Rawls can prove to be that, the Hilltoppers will have a good chance to make some noise in March.