C-USA Preview: Charlotte at Western Kentucky

beIN SPORTS

CONFERENCE USA BASKETBALL: CHARLOTTE AT WESTERN KENTUCKY

beIN SPORTS heads back to Bowling Green, Kentucky on Thursday night as the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (20-7 overall, 12-2 C-USA) look to continue their impressive season, while interim head coach Houston Fancher and the laboring Charlotte 49ers (5-20 overall, 1-13 C-USA) will be desperate to notch one in the win column.

After graduating four of five starters from last year’s disappointing 15-17 campaign, head coach Rick Stansbury dramatically improved his squad from one year to the next through exceptional recruiting and transfer additions. Here are the newcomers the Hilltoppers:

  • Guard Lamonte Bearden - a junior transfer from Buffalo - has been a consistent contributor in his first season with the team.
  • Center Dwight Coleby - a senior transfer from Kansas - is averaging almost 12 points a game and 8 rebounds. Paired with Justin Johnson, the addition of Coleby gives WKU one of the most imposing frontcourt pairings in the conference.
  • Guard Josh Anderson - a freshman four-star recruit - missed the first half of the season with eligibility issues, but has shown flashes of real stardom despite playing just 16 minutes a game for the Hilltoppers.
  • Guard Taveion Hollingsworth - a freshman and former Mr. Basketball for the state of Kentucky - would be running away with the Freshman of the Year honors were it not for UTSA’s Jhivaan Jackson.
  • Guard Darius Thompson - a Senior transfer from Virginia - leads the team in scoring and assists and will be in consideration for one of the postseason all-conference teams. 

The one returning starter from last year’s roster is Justin Johnson - and he has been phenomenal. The Hazard, Kentucky native leads Conference USA in rebounding (9.5 RPG) and is just behind Thompson in points (14.6) per game. He’s third in field goal percentage (51.6%) and has turned himself into a solid three-point shooter (40.6%) when they need him. Johnson may not win Conference USA Player of the Year come March, but he should absolutely be in the conversation.

With just two more home games left before graduation, you can bet that Johnson will be looking for the ball on Thursday night.

Stansbury deserves credit for putting together the roster, but even more impressive has been the team’s ability to mesh despite not having played together at all before this season. Despite some notable bumps in the road - a home loss in their season opener to Missouri State and a road loss to Ohio - the transition has been mostly smooth. The team has been dominant since conference play began.

Western Kentucky comes into Thursday night winners of 13 of their last 15 games. The current NCAA RPI rankings - which sorts college hoops teams based on wins, losses, and strength of schedule - rate them the 60th best team in the country. If they end there, it would be their best performance in that metric since the NCAA Selection Committee started using the metric in 2011. With one more win on Thursday night will give the program its best win total in a season this decade.

Things couldn’t be going very much worse for Charlotte. 

After firing former NBA All-Star and longtime NBA assistant Mark Price in December, Fancher and the 49ers are in the midst of one of the worst seasons in program history. They come into Bowling Green on the back of a 12-game losing skid - the program’s largest losing streak in over 30 years.

Last week’s Texas twosome featured two heartbreaking losses at home to UTEP and UTSA. 

Charlotte played well enough last Thursday, but - after a critical missed free throw late in the game - fell after UTEP’s Paul Thomas hit a jump shot with just over 2 seconds left. On Saturday night, they outplayed a good UTSA team in the second half, but after a Jhivvan Jackson jump-shot sent the game to overtime, the 49ers didn’t have enough left in the tank in the extra period.

Though things may look bleak right now for Charlotte, they are still not mathematically eliminated from the conference tournament. They are two games behind UTEP - the team with the last spot in March’s tournament in Frisco, Texas. If Fancher wants to save his job and have another chance at righting the ship next season, he will need his team to put together a nice win or two at the end of the season to keep them out of the last spot in the Conference. 

CHARLOTTE KEYS TO THE GAME

The offense begins and ends with the two lead guards - Andrien White and 2017 Second-Team All-Conference USA selection Jon Davis. Between points and assists, they are responsible for two-thirds of the team’s offense. If there’s something they do well, its, get to the line with aggressive slashing drives. However, finding consistent contributions behind them has been a struggle all year.

The defensive side of the court has been an even bigger struggle. Charlotte has allowed the most points per game (80.7) of any team since conference play began in December. Opposing teams are shooting 48.8% from the field - worst in the conference since league play began - and 39.8% from beyond the arc - second-worst in the conference during that span. They don’t force turnovers.

Charlotte has been ravaged by departures this season - injury-related and otherwise. Senior guard Hudson Price - one of the team’s best players - left the team in December after his father, Mark Price, was fired. Freshman guard Ryan Murphy had a 27-point game against Old Dominion earlier this year but is out for the year with a foot injury. White has missed significant time in the last month with nagging injuries.

For a team that doesn’t have many other places to turn, the 49ers will need to find development from its young players during this last stretch. Freshman guard Luka Vasic is coming off of back-to-back double-digit scoring games - including his first career double-double against UTSA on Saturday.

In order for Charlotte to win, they must: 

  • Force WKU below its field goal percentage averages
  • Get to the free-throw line often
  • Find someone who can score - not named White or Davis

 

WESTERN KENTUCKY KEYS TO THE GAME

There is not a more well-balanced offensive team than Western Kentucky in Conference USA.

The Hilltoppers make almost half of their shots from the floor - 49.7% to be exact. That’s the best field goal percentage of any team in the conference and 16th best in the country. They’re second in the conference in points per game. All five starters average double figures in points per game. They’re second-best at getting to the line. Despite taking the least amount of threes per game in Conference USA, they rank second in three-point field goal percentage. With their talented guards and wing talent, they are absolutely deadly in transition. There really isn’t anything they don’t do well.

Western Kentucky has been solid defensively - even if not dominant on that end of the floor. That’s especially impressive considering that most of these players had never played together before this season. Coleby and Johnson have done an excellent job of defending the paint with shot-blocking and rebounding. They defend the three-point line well. They have active hands and get steals.

 

If there is anything that will slow them down in this game, it’s looking forward to the rest of the schedule. After Charlotte, the Hilltoppers host second-place Old Dominion on Saturday night. Next week, they close out the season with two tough road games against champion Middle Tennessee and UAB. This may look like an easy win on paper, but no team can afford be looking ahead of the game at hand.

In order for Western Kentucky to win, they must:

  • Focus on Charlotte - no silly mistakes
  • Get the easy baskets at the rim they have become known for
  • Force someone not named Davis or White to beat you

Prediction: Charlotte 75, Western Kentucky 87

Other Thursday Games Across Conference USA
Rice @ FAU - 7:00PM ET
Old Dominion @ Marshall - 7:00PM ET
North Texas @ FIU - 7:00PM ET
Southern Miss @ UTSA - 8:00PM ET
Louisiana Tech @ UTEP - 9:00PM ET