It hasn’t taken Rick Stansbury long to make an impact.
Without yet coaching a single game at Western Kentucky, it can be argued that he already has a stranglehold on Conference USA. Thanks to his tremendous first offseason with the Hilltoppers, it is WKU’s world and everyone is is just living in it.
We already discussed his landing of top-10 recruit Mitchell Robinson at length when it happened. That type of commitment would itself provide the WKU fan base a reason to be more positive heading into the 2016-’17 college basketball season than at any other time in the program’s history.
Still, there’s so much more going on with the Hilltoppers.
Yes, Robinson is the most important aspect of everything, but he’s only one major piece among several others that appear to be putting Western Kentucky in a weird position — to be the favorite to win Conference USA for the next two seasons after winning 18 games and dismissing its previous head coach last year.
Stansbury landed the commitment of transferring Buffalo player Lamonte Bearden. A two-year starter for the Bulls, the 6-3 guard helped the program reach the NCAA Tournament in both of his seasons with the team. He averaged 13.7 points and 4.2 assists per game – both team highs – as a sophomore in 2015-’16.
To highlight that he’s not just some random mid-major guy who got numbers at a lower level of college basketball, Bearden tallied 19 points, 3 assists and 3 rebounds against the Miami Hurricanes in the NCAA Tournament this past March. He will have two years of eligibility left.
Also coming to Western Kentucky is Moustaphe Diagne. He’s a top-70 prospect from the class of 2015 who originally signed with Syracuse but never enrolled. It’s a confusing situation to say the least, but at the end of the day it is all sunshine and rainbows for Stansbury.
All of that is great, but those guys won’t help the Hilltoppers this upcoming season. Both Diagne and Bearden will need to sit out a season per NCAA rules, and Robinson is a member of the 2017 recruiting class.
That said, Western Kentucky’s next season might be so bright that the ‘Toppers will have to wear shades.
The immediate future is also promising.
Junior Lomomba (formerly of Providence), Que Johnson (Washington State), and Pancake Thomas (Hartford) are all transferring to Western Kentucky and are immediately eligible to play. All three are legitimate contributors who can help Robinson and Stansbury kick-start WKU’s resurgence this season.
Lomomba endured a weird run with the Friars. Having started his collegiate career with Cleveland, he played 24 minutes per game last season for the Friars, but never put up any gaudy stats. More of a glue guy than anything else, the 6-5 guard will add depth to WKU’s backcourt.
He is essentially transferring “down” a level to be a backup guard. That is, unless Stansbury goes with a three-guard system.
The other two guys should have opposing coaches feeling nervous.
Johnson, who will presumably start at one of the two guard positions, averaged 11 points per game and shot over 40 percent beyond the arc last season. He played limited minutes for the Cougars — 25 per game — so the fact he was that productive in such a small allotment of time can make one easily project him to be a world-beater after going from Pac-12 competition to a lesser Conference USA.
Then there’s Pancake Thomas, the most recent transfer to come play for Stansbury.
Enough flowery words can’t be said about this talented guard. Likely to start at the guard position opposite Johnson, Thomas was a marvel in the AEC last season, averaging 19 points per game on 43 percent shooting beyond the arc for Hartford.
While it is tougher to project his season — since going up in conference will prove far more difficult for him than Johnson’s going down — he will at least add yet another scorer to a team which will be able to spread the floor.
That’s what can’t be lost when discussing WKU’s upcoming season. Yes, Robinson is the following season and that’s when the excitement appears to be projected, but the Hilltoppers are bringing in very capable players to help them win right now.
By adding TWO guys who shot over 40 percent from three last season, the Hilltoppers will force coaches to make tough choices. Moreover, it will give Stansbury a ton of options on the offensive side of the ball.
Among Thomas, Johnson, and several other solid role players, the era of Western Kentucky owning Conference USA begins now… and we’ve yet to play a single game.
While Western Kentucky is being built to be good for the long term, analysts can already envision a tremendous 2017-’18 season thanks to certain transfers and commitments coming in. For the sake of everything holy, don’t overlook the Hilltoppers this season.
It is astonishing, but little old WKU has become THE must-see team of the upcoming season.