Tops open CUSA play at home against Liberty

Published 3:49 pm Friday, January 5, 2024

By Jeff Nations, Bowling Green Daily News

Steve Lutz has delivered – so far – for Western Kentucky’s men’s basketball program.

The new man with a new plan, hired to replace former WKU head coach Rick Stansbury and stop the Hilltoppers’ long wander in the wilderness of missing the NCAA tournament – the Tops’ last of 23 appearances in the Big Dance came back in 2013 – Lutz has the Hilltoppers atop the Conference USA regular-season standings heading into Saturday’s CUSA opener against new league rival Liberty.

The Tops delivered a perfect December with a 6-0 mark, part a seven-game winning streak they take into Saturday’s 5 p.m. matchup against the Flames at E.A. Diddle Arena. The game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.

WKU (11-3) has not lost on its home floor in six appearances this season, and the team’s success has started to awaken the fanbase. After regularly topping 4,000 fans for home games even last season – with a high of 5,623 in attendance for the final home game against UAB on Feb. 23, 2023 – the Tops saw their first home crowd of better than 4,000 – 4,011 – in last Saturday’s 86-84 win against Abilene Christian.

It was a good crowd, considering the WKU students were still largely absent while on holiday break. Lutz wants more seats filled starting Saturday against Liberty (11-4) as the Tops look to continue the best 14-game start the program has enjoyed since the 2001-02 season – another NCAA tournament qualifying year for the school.

“I’m really not trying to anger anybody or get on anybody’s nerves here, but there’s 3,000 or 4,000 seats still available,” Lutz said during his postgame news conference after the Abilene Christian game. “I get it. I don’t read the internet, I don’t read the paper but I have people tell me ‘Well coach, you guys are 11-3 but you’re really only 8-3 because you played three non-D1s.’ I don’t care if we’re 15-3 or 8-3 – that’s a good basketball team. They play hard, they play the right way and they deserve to have people come and support them and I just hope that they will.”

Led by junior point guard Don McHenry (14.9 points per game, third best in CUSA), the Tops have the league’s No. 1 scoring offense at 80.4 points per game. WKU is also CUSA’s best rebounding team at 42 per game (19th nationally) and rank 22nd in the nation in defending the 3-point line, allowing opponents to shoot only 28% from beyond the arc.

Senior guard Khristian Lander, who hit the go-ahead shot with seven seconds left in the win against and earned CUSA Player of the Week honors after his 19-point performance, ranks second on the team with 10.3 points per game.

Redshirt senior guard Brandon Newman (9.4 ppg) is second in CUSA in defensive rebounding (5.6 per game), senior forward Tyrone Marshall Jr. is scoring 9.3 points while ranking second in the conference in blocks (19) and third in steals (25), and fifth-year forward Rodney Howard is scoring 9.2 points and grabbing 4.6 rebounds per game.

Marshall, now in his second season at WKU, said the lively crowd helped the Tops pull out the win against Abilene Christian.

“It feels good definitely being home with this big crowd,” Marshall said. “I love when the crowd comes out. That’s all we need, more fans to just keep coming, keep coming because we’re going to keep winning when they keep coming out. I love just turning up the crowd because it’s been a minute since we’ve been winning like this. Now it’s time for us to show what we really can do at Western Kentucky.”

Liberty received five first-place votes and tied with Middle Tennessee as the No. 1 pick in the CUSA preseason coaches poll – WKU was picked third, with two first-place votes. The Flames are coming off an 88-46 win against Louisville’s Boyce College, a National Christian College Athletic Association member, on Monday in Lynchburg, Va. That win came just two days after Liberty was crushed 101-56 by Alabama in Birmingham, Ala.

The Flames feature a trio of Kentuckians, with senior guard Kyle Rode (Lexington) and sophomore guard Colin Porter (Ashland) full-time starters, while freshman Jaylen Davis (Richmond) has not seen action this season.

Rode, a 6-foot-7 redshirt senior forward, leads the team with 12.9 points per game and has hit 40-of-101 (39.6%) from 3-point range. Porter is averaging 8.7 points per outing.

Liberty has featured the same starting lineup all season, with redshirt junior guard Kaden Metheny (11.9 ppg), sophomore forward Zach Cleveland (10.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and junior guard Joseph Venzant (6.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg) mainstays in the starting five. Junior guard Brody Peeples is the top player off the bench, averaging 11.5 points per game.

The Flames beat Wichita State 84-66 in a neutral-site matchup on Nov. 17 – WKU lost to the Shockers, the only common opponent between the CUSA rivals, 71-61 on Nov. 9 in Wichita, Kan.

Liberty ranks nationally in assist/turnover ratio (third, 1.99), fewest turnovers per game (fifth, 8.9), 3-pointers per game (eighth, 11.0) and scoring defense (10th, 61.3).

Saturday’s game will be Liberty’s first ever as a Conference USA member after moving over from the ASUN, and the first matchup all time against WKU.

“We’re probably the top two teams in the league thus far and they’re coming to our arena for the home game,” Lutz said. “We’ve got to make it hard on them. Now, do we have to do our part? Absolutely, but I should would like to think that we’ve got 8,000 people here in Bowling Green and the surrounding area that got our back and are gonna make it hard for Liberty to come in here and win.”