Rested up: Tops hope to stay hot in road matchup against Blue Raiders

Published 2:43 pm Friday, February 23, 2024

By Jeff Nations, Bowling Green Daily News

Western Kentucky’s men’s basketball team got a break this week, whether desired or not.

Riding a five-game win streak, the Hilltoppers will have had a full week free of games when they tip off in Saturday night’s 6:30 p.m. matchup against Conference USA rival Middle Tennessee in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+.

That may not seem ideal – plenty of time to cool off – but WKU coach Steve Lutz prefers to take a more positive view of the break from game action even at the risk of a bit of rust.

“It’s just natural for coaches to worry, so of course I do,” Lutz said during his Monday media availability. “But I also think that this time of year is when you can really regain some benefits in terms of rest and recovery for your bodies.”

That meant extra time for the Tops in the training room and the weight room working with the strength and conditioning staff, stretching and recovering a bit from the regular-season grind before hitting this final four-game stretch starting Saturday.

WKU (19-7 overall, 8-4 CUSA) still has designs on winning the conference regular-season title and is just a game back of current co-leaders Louisiana Tech and Sam Houston State. It will be a challenge, with three of the final four regular-season games on the road. After Saturday’s rematch against the Blue Raiders, the Tops are back at E.A. Diddle Arena for the final time on Wednesday to square off against La Tech, then on the road to take on Florida International (March 2) and Liberty (March 9) to close out the slate.

First up is MTSU – the Tops won the first meeting between the longtime rivals 88-65 on Feb. 3 at Diddle, surging ahead in the second half after a halftime tie to claim the lopsided win. That was the first of this current five-game winning streak.

“Anytime you go into those rivalry games, just like I said when we played them here, your record goes out the window,” Lutz said. “There’s a lot to play for and there’s going to be a lot of people in that arena wearing blue and hopefully there will be a lot of people in red that come down and support us and try to offset their home environment.”

MTSU (11-16, 5-7 CUSA) is coming off a 76-68 road loss Wednesday against Jacksonville State that snapped the Blue Raiders’ three-game win streak. It will be senior night for the host team, just another bit of motivation for MTSU to even up the regular-season series with the Tops.

“We played well up there in the first half, we went in tied at halftime and just didn’t put together that same execution in the second half,” McDevitt said on his weekly coaches’ show appearance. “I thought once they got a double-digit lead on us, we stopped playing the right way. We started trying to shoot a 12-point shot, shoot a 15-point shot in when there’s no such thing. And all of a sudden, it just got worse.

“We’ve got to be better on Saturday and I think we will.”

In that first matchup, MTSU got a huge boost from redshirt senior guard Jalen Jordan – he hit six 3-pointers and scored 22 points against WKU. Jordan has only averaged 6.2 points per game this season.

Avoiding a repeat of the Jordan experience is just one of the concerns for Lutz. MTSU’s leading scorer Jestin Porter delivered a scorching performance in his last time playing at the Murphy Center – in a 96-90 double-overtime win against UTEP on Feb. 17, the junior guard went 8-for-8 from 3-point range and scored 41 points.

Porter isn’t even the Blue Raiders’ top deep threat – that would be Elias King (12.6 points per game), who has hit a team-high 59 3-pointers this season.

“When they shoot the ball well and they’re making eight 3s a game at home, that poses a problem,” Lutz said. ” … We’ve been one of the better defensive teams at guarding the 3-point line in the league and our task obviously will be not to allow that to happen. I thought for the most part, other than the Jordan kid, in the first game at our place we defended Elias King pretty well and Porter pretty well. But we did a very poor job on Jordan. We’ve got to figure out a way to defend all those guys. It’s a little bit like playing Liberty – they’ve got a lot of guys that can shoot the basketball.”

The Tops showed impressive scoring balance in the win against New Mexico State this past Saturday. Point guard Don McHenry, the Tops’ leading scorer this season at 16.2 points per game, had a modest night – by his standards – with 10 points against the Aggies. Freshman Teagan Moore (12 points) led the way, with WKU’s Babacar Faye, Enoch Kalambay and Rodney Howard also reaching double-digit scoring – Brandon Newman and Dontaie Allen just missed joining them with nine points each.

Lutz is expecting a tough matchup against the Blue Raiders.

“As fast as we play, we’ve got to make sure that we get the ball to the basket whether we throw it into the post or we drive it into the lane or however we get it there,” Lutz said. “That’s always going to be important for us.”