Why Western Kentucky is No Guarantee to Run Through C-USA

By Kevin Sweeney

Last offseason, Western Kentucky hired Texas A&M assistant and former Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury to run their program. Since, WKU has been a menace on the recruiting trail, landing the 9th best 2017 recruiting class in the country along with a few impact transfers. The Hilltoppers will be unquestionably talented, especially for a team that plays in a mid-major conference.

Many, including myself, have predicted big things for Western Kentucky this season. There are most peoples’ pick to win Conference USA and some are even considering them the top mid-major in the country for next season. I recently predicted that they would win the C-USA this season. However, it isn’t as easy as it seems to take the step to pick WKU to have a huge upcoming season. After all, this situation of having such few returning contributors but so many talented players entering the fray is very rare.

Being talented doesn’t mean success is guaranteed. This article will look at a similar situation to this one from just a few years ago to see how likely it is Stansbury’s band of talented newcomers will live up to the hype. That comparison: the 2014-15 UNLV Rebels.

In the 2014 recruiting period, then-UNLV head coach Dave Rice brought in the 4th-ranked class in the country. That class, headlined by the #12 recruit in college basketball in Rashad Vaughn, featured a pair of 5-star prospects, two 4-star prospects, and a three-star prospect. However, only one player who had played more than 20 minutes per game the previous season returned (Jelan Kendrick played 20.8 minutes per game), leaving the Rebels lacking experience.

Let’s compare that to this 2017 Western Kentucky class. As I mentioned earlier, it was ranked as the 9th-best in the country. The top player, 5-star center Mitchell Robinson, was ranked 8th nationally. In addition to Robinson, the HIlltoppers bring in two 4-star prospects and two 3-star prospects (as well as a pair of 2-stars). Just like UNLV in 2014-15, the Hilltoppers will bring back just 1 player who averaged more than 20 minutes per game (Justin Johnson averaged 31.4 minutes per game). Even Johnson is no guarantee to see action this season, as he will be playing football, then may return to the basketball team following the bowl game.

Still, experience isn’t necessary when there is that much talent on a roster, right? Wrong. While we see John Calipari’s Kentucky teams have no issue relying on almost exclusively freshmen each year, that is the exception, not the rule. Over the last 3 years, of players ranked from 26-50 in the national recruiting rankings, just 21.3% contributed more than 3 win shares as a freshman. Sure, the typical one-and-done freshman can help carry a team to success, but a highly-rated guy who is expected to stay for more than one year isn’t likely to make a national splash.

So, let’s draw that back to our UNLV/WKU connection. Each class had one player in the top 15 (what I deem 1-and-done range) and the rest are above 25th. At UNLV, things played out just as the numbers projected. The highest-touted prospect in Vaughn had a big year, averaging almost 18 points per game in his only season in Las Vegas. However, the other recruits made less of an impact. The next-highest rated player, Dwayne Morgan, posted just 5.3 ppg and 3.0 rpg. After Morgan was Goodluck Okonoboh, who averaged 5.7 ppg and 4.5 rpg. 3-stars Patrick McCaw and Jordan Cornish posted 9.6 and 5.5 points per game, respectively.

So, how did this talented UNLV team do? They stumbled to just a 17-15 mark against D1 competition, going just 8-10 in Mountain West play. This wasn’t an outstanding year for the Mountain West, either. It ranked 13th in conference RPI that season, per WarrenNolan.com, a mark I anticipate being right around where the C-USA falls this season. Vaughn did miss the final 9 games of the season with an injury, but UNLV went 4-5 in those games, compared to 5-6 in the 11 preceding games (all conference tilts).

Now, this comparison isn’t perfect. It fails to account for the fact that Western Kentucky also brings in a pair of experienced transfers in guards Lamonte Bearden (Buffalo) and Darius Thompson (Virginia), along with the fact that Justin Johnson is a better returning player than Jelan Kendrick. In addition, WKU brings back a pair of talented forwards who redshirted this season in 4-star Moustapha Diagne and 3-star Robinson Idehen. It is worth noting, however, that UNLV’s second-leading scorer (and arguably best player) on that 2014-15 team was former top recruit Christian Wood, who was a sophomore that season.

I do still expect Western Kentucky to win 20 or more games and contend for a Conference USA title. However, this example does go to show that highly-rated incoming talent doesn’t necessarily equate to wins. This expectation that the top recruits (with the exception of Robinson) will simply walk in and immediately be starting caliber players isn’t likely to be reality.

All statistics used in this article are per sportsreference.com unless otherwise specified. All recruiting rankings and information are per 247sports.com, unless otherwise specified. 

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