Western Kentucky’s basketball team was sent back to the drawing board on Monday night by Florida Atlantic, a poised outfit that rolled into E.A. Diddle Arena and dismantled the Hilltoppers, 76-62 — proving to one and all why they are ranked among the nation’s Top 25 for the first time in program history.
Now, up-and-down WKU, which had a modest three-game win streak snapped following a five-game losing skid, must begin again — sitting 11-7 overall and a precarious 3-4 within a significantly-improved Conference USA.
The Hilltoppers visit Louisiana Tech on Thursday before returning to Bowling Green for a Saturday encounter with upstart Charlotte. Neither game will be easy; nor will any of the others that remain on WKU’s 2022-23 schedule.
“This is a strong league this season, especially at the top,” Western associate head coach Phil Cunningham has said of C-USA. “You have to be ready to play every time you step on the floor.”
The Hilltoppers appeared ready to play on Monday in front of a revved-up home crowd, but there were some glaring, tell-tale statistics that WKU simply could not overcome over the course of 40 minutes.
After outscoring UAB’s bench 33-11 and Florida International’s bench 21-4 in consecutive victories, the Hilltoppers saw that stat turned around on them by FAU, whose reserves outscored Western’s, 38-24. Two of the Owls’ top three scorers were non-starters.
“Some of their best players come off the bench,” Cunningham had stated Saturday in what proved to be a spot-on forewarning about the Owls. “They have a lot of talent up and down their roster.”
Even more telling, FAU, whose starting five is comprised of four guards and a center, outrebounded the taller Toppers by an embarrassing margin (43-25), leading to hefty advantages in both points in the paint (24-12) and second-chance points (13-6).
Western’s top rebounder was 6-foot-1 point guard Dayvion McKnight, with nine. This does not compute when you feature the nation’s tallest player, 7-5 center Jamarion Sharp.
Also, FAU managed to get to the foul stripe 26 times (making 19), while Western took only 13 free throws (making nine).
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Finally, the Owls shot 54% from the field in the second half, making 5-of-10 shots from distance, while Western shot just 42% over the same stretch, going 3-of-10 from long range. FAU also led in points off turnovers (15-13) and fast break points (10-4).
Game, set, match for Florida Atlantic, a well-coached outfit that plays like a team on a mission.
Worth noting, the Hilltoppers played their seventh consecutive game without seventh-year head coach Rick Stansbury, who is still recuperating from an undisclosed health issue. Stansbury is awaiting medical clearance to return to the bench. Out for the second straight game was 6-8 starting guard Emmanuel Akot (hand injury), who is expected to play at Louisiana Tech.
Know this: Western faces a slippery slope in its next four games, which close out the January portion of the schedule. After playing Louisiana Tech and Charlotte, the Hilltoppers must travel to the Sunshine State to face FIU (Jan. 26) and, yes, FAU (Jan. 28). Testers, all.
Indeed, several moments of truth await a hard-to-figure WKU team that just can’t quite put it all together, flashes of excellence (most notably, winning at UAB) notwithstanding.
Clearly, at this point, WKU must find a way to win the C-USA Tournament if it expects to compete in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade. To do this, the Hilltoppers must show drastic improvement in a host of areas between now and March 9.
But the clock is ticking, and the Hilltoppers must make the most of every precious second with a lot of hard work and soul searching to put themselves in position to succeed when it matters most. They must find their identity, and fast.
You can’t just flip a switch in March.