The Western Kentucky basketball program is hoping this will be the season the Hilltoppers finally get over the hump and reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013.
All things considered, WKU certainly appears poised to make it happen.
“I like our team, I like the pieces we have and the way I believe we’re going to be able to fit them together,” said Western Kentucky fifth-year head coach Rick Stansbury, whose team went 20-10 overall and 13-5 in Conference USA before the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out postseason play last March.
“We’re excited to get the season started. I’m very excited, as are all of our players. We’re in our comfort zone when we’re coaching and playing college basketball, and we’re really looking forward to the opportunity to get back on the court, to coach and play the game we love.”
The Hilltoppers, who open the season against Northern Iowa on Wednesday in Sioux Falls, S.D., are the preseason choice to win the C-USA championship by a wide margin — garnering 11 of 14 first-place votes from league coaches.
The return of All-American candidate Charles Bassey, a 6-foot-11, 235-pound junior, certainly helps. Bassey averaged 15.3 points, 9-2 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, and 1.3 assists in 10 games last year before his season was cut short by a knee injury suffered Dec. 7 in WKU’s overtime win over visiting Arkansas.
“Charles never missed a beat through rehab and he’s worked as hard as he’s ever worked in his life to get back on the court,” Stansbury said. “I think going through what he’s had to go through has made him mentally stronger, and I think he’s a better player now than he was before — I like where he’s at, for sure.”
Bassey, however, is far from the only experienced standout returning for WKU.
In addition, four seniors could join Bassey in the starting lineup, including 6-2 three-year starting guard Taveion Hollingsworth, who averaged 16.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.7 steals per game as a junior in 2019-20. He shot 47% from the field, 84% from the foul stripe, and now ranks 18th on the Hilltoppers’ all-time scoring list with 1,494 points.
“The common thread for Taveion is his ability to score the basketball,” Stansbury said, “but he’s also expanded his game over the past three seasons because of all the experience he’s gained. There’s no substitute for experience and there’s no stage too big for Taveion Hollingsworth.”
But there’s more.
Also back is 6-6 senior power forward Carson Williams (14 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and 6-6 senior swingman Josh Anderson (10.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg, one of the most spectacular dunkers in all of college basketball. In addition, 6-foot senior point guard Kenny Cooper — ineligible last season after transferring from Lipscomb — is now ready to roll.
Others returning include 6-1 sophomore combo guard Jordan Rawls (7.9 ppg), who started 16 games last season, and 6-7 sophomore power forward Isaiah Cozart, who appeared in 19 games off the bench.
Incoming talent for Western includes Luke Frampton, a 6-5 junior sharpshooting transfer from Davidson, 6-1 freshman guard Dayvion McKnight, last season’s Kentucky Mr. Basketball recipient out of Collins, 6-4 freshman guard Kylen Milton out of CORE4 Academy, 6-6 junior forward Kevin Osawe out of Vincennes University, and Conrad Bailey, a 6-7 freshman forward out of Christian Academy of Indiana.
“We’re an experienced team, but the key will be how well we integrate our new guys with our experienced guys,” Stansbury said. “The key to a team’s success is how well your 6, 7, 8, and 9 guys contribute, maybe even 10. It’s a matter of putting everything together, finding that chemistry and rhythm, and just going out and getting the job done every night.”