Forget the implications of this one. Forget that NT might do a good portion of the sealing up the regular season title with this win. Forget that it would solidify the seeding in the Frisco tournament coming up in two weeks. WKU has been something like the measuring stick for North Texas basketball for about 20 years. From facilities to banners, WKU has been the next level for NT for a good while.
This year, NT has the better record but WKU has the head-to-head. While NT has some talented players — conference POY candidate Javion Hamlet, for one — WKU has a roster full of guys who have done incredible things. They have an NIT final fours, back-to-back league title game appearances, and lots of raw ability in their pocket.
This is a big game and the athletic department has been unsubtly reminding everyone of the need to fill out the Pit and make it an event. The game is going to be on CBS Sports Network, the nearest equivalent to traditional cable programing the league has to offer. “No one remembers the game they just watched on TV” said one ad on twitter. For those of you not within reasonable driving distance, ignore that admonishment and make it to the game. The conference title game will be on the same network, so if you do not have it — find it and order it.
WKU has about a good of an offense as North Texas. The Hilltoppers rank third in Kenpom’ offensive efficiency ranking while NT ranks first.
The defenses are similar: NT at 8th (101.0) and WKU at 6th (100.4).
The real question about all this will be if NT can get the buckets against WKU’s athletic lineup. The challenge will be similar to the Tech game in that way. WKU is long and athletic and guys like Josh Anderson can change a game by being able to fly — like literally jump super high.
NT struggled late vs WKU in Bowling Green way back at the start of league play after playing the Tops tough. Back then, WKU had just begun to try to navigate life post-Bassey injury and NT was still figuring out themselves.
Both teams have been improved in recent weeks and NT has been super impressive in particular. Both squads also dropped their first games in Bonus play — both with some almost buzzer-beaters.
Javion Hamlet has been incredible running the point and that is why he is in the conversation for the league’s best player. He can get into the lane and find a high-percentage shot with that little floater. This is something that the Gonzaga-bound Ryan Woolridge was able to do but here is a crucial difference this year: Hamlet is a much better free throw shooter (and shooter overall) and does not get all the way to the rim. The latter means that he is under control a little more and can recover from a missed shot — and does not absorb as much punishment.
Umoja Gibson has not had to do much more than let it fly from any and everywhere — which is ideal– and James Reese has been lighting it up from distance as well. Adding to the chorus has been Thomas Bell, Zach Simmons, and Deng Geu being long and lively in getting rebounds and being active.
WKU’s Taveion Hollingsworth has taken more of a scorer role as Bassey has been out (43 vs Tech in OT! ) but Carson Williams — the transfer from N. Kentucky — has been amazing. Josh Anderson we mentioned, and Jordan Rawls has stepped into the ball-handling role as Hollingsworth steps in at the 2-guard spot.
This thing is essentially for the regular season title — something to be proud of but not necessarily the be-all, end-all. It should be very fun.