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Sam’s Mid-Major Crush of the Week: Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

The Hilltoppers looked like a potential at-large bid in South Dakota

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

So a bit about this new weekly thing I’ll be doing: I’m going to highlight a team, a league, a player; I don’t know, something, every week that was awesome or did something incredible or has been playing really well and/or competitively.

The first installment? Western Kentucky. Runners up in the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic held in scenic Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the Hilltoppers looked every bit like Conference USA favorites and potential at-large bid earners over their week in the Pentagon.

In the past two years, the NBA Draft has seen Ja Morant (author’s note: as a Marquette grad, him jumping on Joey Hauser’s head to dunk all over him still gives me nightmares, especially because I was there in person to witness it) and Obi Toppin go in the lottery. This year, the odds-on favorite to be the mid-major lottery darling is Charles Bassey from WKU.

He’s a prototypical NBA center for the modern game, with the ability to hit a jump shot and provide floor spacing while being an incredible shot blocker, rebounder, interior defender, rim runner, and offensive post threat, all tied into one neat package. His best game so far came against a strong, if not necessarily elite, Memphis team, where he tallied 21 points, 14 rebounds (four offensive), and seven (SEVEN!) blocks. If he can stay healthy this year, unlike last, the Hilltoppers may be the unquestioned favorites in a conference that also includes Marshall, North Texas, and Old Dominion.

Of course, Bassey isn’t the only threat that Western Kentucky provides. His other half in the Dynamic duo is Taveion Hollingsworth, a senior guard who has an absurd 118.7 offensive rating per KenPom through his first three games. He is defending the perimeter without fouling, he’s not turning the ball over, he’s getting himself to the line at will, and he’s making his free throws, all of which usually mean that you A) have a great basketball IQ and B) have spent more time making free throws than I have sleeping. Mind you, I don’t sleep much anyway.

He tallied 26 points against a Northern Iowa team that, despite the 0-3 record in South Dakota, should be a strong contender in the Missouri Valley Conference, and dropped another 18 against Memphis. He’s not exactly the most efficient field goal shooter, but his value lies more in the direction of being a slasher/driver and not a jump shooter. Besides, he has other guys for that.

What really sets Western Kentucky apart from other teams sporting one or two really good players is the supporting cast. In each of the three games the Hilltoppers so far, a different member of the team has stepped up as a complimentary offensive threat to Bassey and Hollingsworth. In the championship game against a very, very elite defensive team, it was senior forward Josh Anderson, who went 5-of-6 from inside the arc. Against Memphis, it was another senior forward, Carson Williams. Williams dropped 14 on 5-of-8 shooting from the field, including 2-of-3 from 3, and dropped nine rebounds, including four offensive rebounds. In the opener against Northern Iowa, freshman point guard Dayvion McKnight, playing in his first ever NCAA basketball game, scored a very casual 21 points on 7 for 10 from the field, made all seven of his free throws, and added in three assists and three steals to only one turnover.

And that’s not to mention transfer Luke Frampton (thanks Davidson), who scored 14 in the Northern Iowa game and is shooting 40% from deep so far.

Looking on a bit more at the stats for the team as a whole, one thing defining this offense is the lack of turnovers. The Hilltoppers are only turning the ball over on 15.8% of possessions, which is a top 50 ranking in the country. Additionally, because Bassey and Williams both exist, the team is a top-100 offensive rebounding team, at just over 30%. Minimal turnovers plus second-chance opportunities equals more shot attempts, which usually (usually!) leads to more points.

Three more positive things to highlight: WKU isn’t allowing many offensive rebounds to its opponents (which, duh, you have an NBA caliber center and another strong wing rebounder in Williams), and is a top-50 team when it comes to blocking shots. Again, NBA lottery caliber center who has a whacky frame/wingspan can help explain that, but it means other players are helping to carry the load, too. Finally, Western Kentucky is holding opponents to just under 41% on two-point field goal attempts. We can point to the usual suspects here: elite defensive center and lanky forwards who are making life hard for opponents who get into the paint/settle for mid-range jump shots.

Only one negative thing: Opponents so far are shooting over 47% from beyond the arc. That could be a problem come conference season, especially against a team like North Texas, which has the potential to light it up from deep whenever they want. I’m playing mostly small-sample-size theater with all of these, but that’s what you have to do early in the season. Northern Iowa is an elite shooting team, and Memphis is pretty decent, but you never want to make your opponent look better than they are from distance.

This is a team that has two very good wins, one very solid looking loss, one kinda meh loss to a fringe top-25 team in Louisville, and still has good non-conference games ahead of it. Western Kentucky did drop the game to Louisville, ending my “Best Team in the Commonwealth” meme, but it won’t look bad, it just makes the path to an at-large bid that much harder. The Hilltoppers do have Rhode Island at home on Sunday, Dec. 13, giving them one more opportunity to nab a solid conference win and pad a pretty good resume, especially in comparison to other teams that will exist on the bubble.

Of course, it makes everything easier to guarantee your spot, so you might as well win the damn conference and the conference tournament and not have to sweat when the committee gets too excited about an 8-12 ACC record Syracuse team for the eleventy-bajillionth time. This is a team I don’t want to see in March if I’m a power conference school, and I’m really excited to see how they match up with the other strong teams in C-USA