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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 7 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

Can Rick Stansbury and the Hilltoppers finally get over the hump and make the NCAA Tournament?

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

2019-2020 Record: 20-10 (13-5 Conference USA)
Key Returning Players: Taveion Hollingsworth (G, Sr.), Charles Bassey (C, Jr.), Josh Anderson (G, Sr.), Carson Williams (F, Sr.), Jordan Rawls (G, So.),
Key Losses: Jared Savage, Camron Justice
Key Newcomers: Kenny Cooper (G, Sr., Lipscomb), Luke Frampton (G, Jr., Davidson)

Even though the Hilltoppers lost star center Charles Bassey to a broken tibia in early December last year, they were still just an overtime away from winning the Conference USA title.

Bassey’s injury forced Rick Stansbury to embrace a small-ball roster that ultimately saw the rotation trimmed to just six players by the time conference play rolled around. Without a player over 6’6 playing significant minutes, the Hilltoppers used an offense that featured a relentless pursuit of shots at the rim and free throws, making every player on the floor a scoring threat. The end result was a team that won six of its last eight games en route to a 13-5 record and second-place finish in the conference.

This year, Stansbury once again brings back what is arguably his best roster since setting up shop in Bowling Green. The mix of returning veterans and talented transfers makes the Hilltoppers the favorite to win the C-USA title for the first time since joining the league in 2014-15.

Key Non-Conference Games

Western Kentucky hasn’t been shy about testing itself in the non-conference slate, and this season will be much of the same (if there aren’t any hiccups, of course). The Hilltoppers plan to participate in the Golden Window Classic (Lincoln, Neb.) to start the season, which will quickly be followed up by the Wade Houston Tip-Off Classic (Louisville) shortly after. They’ll also play host to a talented Rhode Island team for the returning end of a home-and-home series.

Nov. 25 vs. Nevada
Nov. 26 vs. LSU
Nov. 28 vs. Little Rock
Dec. 1 vs. Louisville
Dec. 13 vs. Rhode Island

3 things to watch:

Will Charles Bassey bounce back?

As mentioned above, Bassey missed almost two thirds of last season with a broken tibia. Up until the injury, the former five-star recruit was living up the lofty expectations that were thrust upon him when he decided to return for his sophomore season. He was averaging just under a double-double with 15.3 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, and his interior presence anchored the Hilltoppers’ defense.

As tough of a matchup as Bassey is on offense, Bassey’s prowess on the back-end of WKU’s defense was sorely missed. The Hilltoppers ranked 306th in the country in opponent’s offensive rebounding rate (31.1%) and 317th in opponent’s two-point percentage (53.5%), according to KenPom. Per Hoop Math, opponents shot 62% at the rim, which ranked 278th in the country. With Carson Williams acting as the de-facto center despite being just 6’5, it’s no surprise that the interior was not as fortified as it would be with a 6’11 NBA talent manning it.

A healthy Bassey has the potential to be one of the best two-way players in college basketball, especially if he continues to develop his offensive repertoire. With him, the ‘Toppers’ ceiling is raised from being a solid mid-major team to a team that’s capable of winning games in the NCAA Tournament.

How will Kenny Cooper mesh in the backcourt?

During the 2018-19 season, Cooper was the engine for a Lipscomb team that had one of the best up-tempo offenses in college basketball. After transferring to WKU and sitting out a year, he’s ready to step in as a floor general for another offense that has proven itself to be potent already. Stansbury is excited about what the lightning-quick guard can bring to the table, and he told Blue Ribbon Yearbook that he expects him to get his teammates open looks.

“He’s gonna pass that damn ball,” Stansbury says. “Everybody knows—just run the floor and get open and he’s going to get it to you. He’s a pass-first point guard.”

Two of the guys he’ll be tasked with getting the ball to are Taveion Hollingsworth and Josh Anderson. Hollingsworth is coming off of a First Team All-C-USA season, and did seemingly everything for the ‘Toppers once Bassey went down. Anderson was among the best in the country at getting to the free throw line with a free throw rate of 64.2% that ranked 37th in the country. Both are capable of getting buckets all over the floor under their own volition.

WKU has enough weapons that can score, especially on the perimeter. With a pure point guard like Cooper, there could be less of a reliance on isolation scoring. Last season, the Hilltoppers assisted on just 42.4% of their made field goals, which ranked 336th nationally. A proven facilitator in Cooper should help improve that mark.

Can Luke Frampton provide enough shooting to open up the floor?

The sharpshooting Luke Frampton from Davidson was the other noteworthy transfer pickup for Stansbury. He only played five games for the Wildcats last season before taking a leave of absence, but he lit up from deep in that short stint. He started hot with a 14-29 (48.3%) showing after hitting 96-252 (38.1%) as a freshman.

His ability to space the floor is sorely needed for a WKU team that desperately needs it. The graduations of Jared Savage and Cam Justice take away the two highest three-point shooters by volume, and Carson Williams (39.0%) is the only returning player that hit higher than 33% last season.

Frampton’s role will be simple: come in and hit shots. Someone needs to, so why not him?

X-Factor:

Carson Williams

He’s been mentioned frequently in the sections above, which is a testament to the role that Williams can play for WKU. Need perimeter shooting? He’s a career 37.5% shooter from deep. Need someone to play any frontcourt position? Williams has shown he can do it.

He’s the perfect compliment to the rest of the roster. He can space the floor to provide room for Bassey to operate. He’s an efficient scorer. He rebounds. He takes care of the ball and is a tough defender. As Stansbury told Blue Ribbon, he brings that “warrior mentality.”