People living in Kentucky often describe their home-state with three words: horses, bourbon and basketball.
Horses is, of course, a reference to the Kentucky Derby, one of the most famous horse races around the world. Bourbon is a type of American whiskey that gets his name from the Bourbon county in Kentucky. And basketball is about the Louisville Cardinals and the Kentucky Wildcats.
In the last few years, however, there is a university that is trying to break this duopoly: Western Kentucky, in Bowling Green. Their new coach, Rick Stansbury, is working to lead them to a prominent role, but it’s hard to tell how prominent it will be right now.
Things were not going all that well up until last March: following the season finale, junior Fredrick Edmond, one of the best shooters at roster, and freshmen Marlon Hunter and Chris McNeal, violated the Student Code – the behavioral and ethic standards in effect inside the campus – and were suspended by the Disciplinary Committee. Following an agreement between the university and the three students, details of the violation were not disclosed. The day after the suspensions Ray Harper, the first coach ever to lead WKU to three consecutive 20+ win seasons, resigned, despite having only a few months left on his contract. He never explained what brought him to resign, his resignation note only stated his appreciation for the university, the people he worked with and the fans, per usual.
It was a volatile situation and the new coach would have to be experienced and able to bring back some peace within the campus. That is when coach Stansbury, 56, 14 years as Mississippi State head coach, got the call. In the first months of his tenure he managed to surprise plenty of insiders and fans for recruiting a group of players who usually commit to more prominent universities. For example, the Hilltoppers were in the conversation until the very last minute to sign Malik Newman, who decided to commit to Kansas. Mitchell Robinson, a 2017 top 10 recruit, already signed his letter of intent and will move to Bowling Green next year. Robinson’s first choice was Texas A&M, where Stansbury worked as an assistant the last two seasons, and then changed his mind when the ex Mississippi State moved to WKU and hired Robinson’s godfather, Shammond Williams, as an assistant.
Coach Stansbury’s work is changing the recruiting hierarchy: Josh Anderson, a 2017 four-star recruit, committed to Western Kentucky as well. Both he and Robinson would have never considered playing in the Conference USA in the past. The so called mid-major tend to focus on developing players internally and on the transfers that leave the big powerhouses, since they usually don’t have the power nor the résumé to lure more coveted prospects. Coach Stansbury, on the other hand, turned Western Kentucky into a team that can play high level basketball, adding four transfers who will be with the team this season, two transfers who will be added in 2017 and four freshmen. The roster turnover, with ten players leaving and ten players replacing them, will allow him to build a new identity without adjusting to players who don’t fit his style.
Power forward Justin Johnson, the best player on the team last year, is the only member of the new rotation to return. He is a reliable scorer in the paint, and very limited outside of it. The frontcourt rotation is well balanced, with British 7-footer Ben Lawson and Tennessee transfer Willie Carmicheal playing alongside Johnson, but the team could use a big with range to open up the floor. Playing time in the backcourt will be split among three transfers, Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas from Hartford, Que Johnson from Washington State and Junior Lomomba from Providence. The three should be a good mix and be able to complement each other. Lomomba will bring defense, Johnson is an effective shooter from distance and Thomas is an all around scorer who averaged 19 points per game last season, but has to improve his reading of passing lanes.
Western Kentucky does not start as a favorite in the Conference USA mainly because rotations seems a bit short and chemistry must be built from scratch, but the team has everything to be the real surprise of the season and reach the tournament. Coach Stansbury will have to prove himself on the bench and not just with recruiting, since in his past experiences he was often unable to maximize the talent he had at his disposal. Chances are he is similar to ex UNLV coach Dave Rice, a skilled recruiter who had players like Bennet, Zimmerman or McCaw committing to his team, but was terrible when it came to Xs and Os, on court adjustments and team management.
However, despite these doubts, the future seems bright in Bowling Green: next season the team will have four top recruits in Robinson, Anderson, Lamonte Beardon (transfer from Buffalo) and Mustapha Diagne (ex Syracuse recruit transferring from a junior college). If everything will go along coach Stansbury plans, Louisville and Kentucky will have a contender for best team in the state and the nation will have a new Cinderella to fear.