By Kevin Sweeney
March 28, 2016. Also known as the day Rick Stansbury was hired as the head coach of Western Kentucky.
Since that day, WKU has been the most interesting team in college basketball. There have been huge recruiting victories both on the prep and transfer markets. Stansbury has basically flipped his entire roster, with just 1 scholarship player returning who played on last season’s team (Justin Johnson). That type of turnover is something we expect from WKU’s neigbors to the northeast in Lexington, but at the mid-major level, it is unheard of.
For most of the spring and early summer, I was fully on the Hilltopper bandwagon. I figured the mass influx of high-major talent, whether it be grad transfers Darius Thompson & Dwight Coleby, Buffalo transfer Lamonte Bearden, JUCO star Jordan Brangers, and prep superstars Mitchell Robinson (5-star) & Josh Anderson (4-star), would be enough to outweigh the inexperience.
Then, things started happening, and it made me more and more concerned.
First, it was the Robinson situation, and what a wild one it was. Following assistant coach (and Robinson’s godfather) Shammond Williams’ departure from Bowling Green under apparently unceremonious terms, things began to come apart. Reports were that Robinson was seriously considering other options than WKU. However, the 5-star center arrived to campus for summer workouts, and all seemed well.
That is, until he packed his bags and returned home without telling anyone. Shortly therafter, he received his release to transfer. After visiting New Orleans, Kansas, and LSU, a Yahoo report stated that Robinson was likely to skip college altogether and stay home to prep for the 2018 NBA Draft. A few days later, rumblings about a potential return to Western Kentucky grew louder, and he confirmed with 2am Snapchat yesterday that he was in fact back at WKU for the beginning of classes. Things were finally going according to plan, right? Right?
Nope. The Soap Opera that has transfixed the college basketball world continued with a stunner just a few hours later, when it was announced that the highly-touted Brangers had left campus and would not play for the Hilltoppers after all. Sources have told me that his departure stems from eligibility issues.
So, as I sat in my house last night pondering how we got here, one thing became incredibly clear to me: I just can’t trust Western Kentucky.
Putting together an entire roster of talented newcomers and expecting it to live up to expectations is difficult as it is. The only program in America that has proven it can do this on a yearly basis is Kentucky under John Calipari.
Calipari has found the formula of taking 4 & 5-star talent and putting it together quickly enough to be a national title contender year in and year out. The key seems to be managing the egos of 10-12 guys, all of whom have been the star of the show for their entire careers. He’s found a way to (for the most part) get kids to buy in to running offense, defending, and sacrificing stats for the good of the team.
At this point, I have a hard time seeing that happening in Bowling Green this season. First off, a summer that was so vital in molding team chemistry was nothing short of a disaster, with the Robinson situation hanging over their heads throughout and the Brangers shoe dropping just when everything seemed steady. Second, it just feels like there are too many egos on this team to manage. Robinson has come off from afar as a bit of a prima donna throughout this saga, and it seems hard to envision him accepting a supporting cast role if he isn’t the immediate star some expect.
Can Stansbury fix this problem? Perhaps. Maybe he can get all of these personalities to mesh and the Hilltoppers can have the season many expected. Maybe it takes all year, but when it comes to the one-and-done nature of March basketball, things finally come together in a way reminiscient to the Kentucky team that went to the national title game as an 8 seed in 2014.
If it is going to happen, it will have to come from the seniors on this team in Coleby, Thompson, and Johnson as leaders, sacrificing stats to make sure the team comes together correctly. Perhaps a veteran big like Coleby who has played under Bill Self at Kansas can be the good influence Robinson needs this season. Perhaps Thompson & Bearden, a pair of guards who have helped teams to NCAA bids, can distribute and be leaders on the floor.
For now though, I have little to no reason to believe anything will go according to plan for Western Kentucky this season.
It certainly hasn’t so far.