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Five Good Minutes: Talking NIT and Hilltopper Basketball with The Towel Rack

Everything you need to know about BC’s first round opponent from a WKU expert

Western Kentucky v Kansas Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Fletcher Keel is the editor of The Towel Rack, a WKU blog. He gave us some inside information on BC’s first round NIT opponent. Get all your answers below, and then check out The Towel Rack for our answers to the Hilltoppers’ questions. Thanks, Fletcher!

BCI: The Hilltoppers had a strong season in Conference USA and finished with a top-50 ranked offense. What makes the WKU offense so efficient and what should BC fans look out for on that end?

Fletcher: WKU’s offense runs through Darius Thompson, a grad-transfer from Virginia, who finished second on the team in points per game and first in assists, but those numbers alone don’t come close to telling the story. When Darius is on, the Tops’ offense is unstopable. He led WKU in Points Produced throughout the season (502), and if the Tops had an off-night, all you had to do was look at Darius’ stat line and understand why.

But, this is the first WKU team in a long time that could get it done anywhere on the court; true-freshman Taveion Hollingsworth looks more and more less like a freshman with each game, as he and forward Justin Johnson (WKU’s most complete player) are threats from three, while Johonson and Kansas transfer Dwight Coleby can get it done inside the paint.

BCI: How has the defense been for you guys this year? Should BC be expecting the zone or mostly man?

Fletcher: WKU started the year with only 8 available players, and because of that they implored (and found a ton of success with) the 1-3-1 zone defense. Since getting Josh Anderson and Moustapha Diagne cleared, they’ve been playing more man, but still pretty much relying on the zone. This weekend for example - the Tops would open with that 1-3-1 set and then move into a 2-3 zone once the offensive side of the ball was calmed down a bit.

However, the strategy changed (and wound up burning the Tops) against Marshall, where it was man-to-man until the final four minutes, when they reverted back to a 1-3-1 and began to make a run at the game. (Thanks to my writer, Matt McCay, for helping me identify this. He also penned the article I linked.)

BCI: Western Kentucky basketball has a great history but east coast fans might not know too much about your school. Can you tell us a little bit about the programs history? And what is a hilltopper?

Fletcher: They do indeed. WKU had a ton of success “back in the day” - really from the 1930’s until the late 70’s, early 80’s, they were one of the premier programs in the country, and were dominant in their conferences during that time span. Coaches such as E.A. Diddle (who the Tops’ arena is named after) and John Oldham (who the court is named after) have helmmed the program, but as have guys like Dennis Felton, Clem Haskins (who also played in a Tops’ uniform) and Ray Harper (now making noise at Jacksonville St.). One of the first things Rick Stansbury said when he was hired following the 2015/16 season was he wanted to put WKU back on the map, and back in the realm of top-flight college hoops, which he’s well on his way to doing after just two years.

The joke among WKU’s rivals is all the success was ages ago, which is true, but the Tops were so dominant that they still hold a Top 10 all-time winning percentage in less than 100 years and, while they have no titles and one vacated final four to show, the rafters are far from bare and the feeling around the program is one of the most positive that it’s been in a while.

It’s a proud tradition, and one that many fans feel could come back sooner rather than later.

As for “What is a Hilltopper,” it’s quite simple - the campus itself is located on a Hill (and, if you’re ever in the Bowling Green area, I highly recommend stopping by. A true hidden gem), and the teams used to play on top of the Hill (all of the athletic facilities are now located at the bottom) so, by nature, they were on Top of the hill -- Hilltoppers!

Our infamous mascot, Big Red, is the personification of the Hill (as he is small at the head and gradually gets bigger as you go down the body). Oh, and the red towel that you’ll see on John Oldham court, as well as in the hands of everyone in the arena - Diddle would hold a red towel as he coached on the sideline, and it became the official icon for WKU athletics.

BCI: What do you think about the experimental rule changes for the NIT this year? How will they affect your a squad?

Fletcher: I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t watch last year’s tournament with those changes, so I don’t know really what to expect in a general sense. I will say I don’t hate the quarters instead of halves, and the three-point extension will be the rule that most affects WKU, with guys like Hollingsworth, Johnson and Thompson (and freshman Jake Ohmer, who started the year red hot but has been considerably cool since conference play) loving the 3 ball, it’ll be interesting (or devastating) to see how sharp shooting the Tops are.

Also, if the 20-second shotclock following an offensive rebound help speeds the game a bit and put more points on the board, I think I’m all for it. I think.

BCI: Who wins this one? How far are the Hilltoppers going in the tourney?

Fletcher: I’m gonna level with you once again, and I hope none of my regular readers are reading - I wasn’t feeling great about the Tops’ chances against Marshall. WKU ended the year as cold as can be but were the exact opposite to start the C-USA tourney. On Saturday, we saw both sides of the coin, and I think finishing the game the way they did (an 11-0 run over the final 3:40+) is going to give them the confidence they need to start fast against BC. On paper, the Tops match up well, and in my view a bit better, than BC, and I think WKU pulls it out - the aforementioned Justin Johnson has been on the Hill for four years and this is his first post-conference tourney game, and he isn’t going to want to go out one-and done.

Points will be scored, fun will be had, and I think WKU closes out an 83-77 win over BC.

As for how far WKU will go, I’m hesitant to say. I like the odds against UNC-Asheville, but I’m less certain about a potential matchup vs. USC. If they can get the breaks, a quarterfinal trip isn’t impossible and this team has the talent to make it to New York, but some of that thinking is also wishful thinking.