Scouting the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers's Joel Welser breaks down Michigan's opponent tonight in the Great Alaska Shootout, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Conference: Sun Belt
2006-07: 22-11, 12-6, 2nd East
2006-07 postseason: none

The one thing that kept Western Kentucky out of the top spot in the conference last year was a quality big man. Six of the top seven scorers were guards. The lone forward from that list is Jeremy Evans. Evans, despite having good size at 6-9, is not a prolific back to the basket scorer. He is a good athlete who can get to the basket and be a huge menace on the defensive end no matter where he ends up playing. However, with this roster, the sophomore will most certainly be playing at the power forward spot once his ankle injury straightens itself out. Matt Maresca, Boris Siakam and Mike Walker earned a few starts last year and will provide depth up front once again. Walker will earn the starts while Evans is out and the 6-7 forward should at least be a decent defender under the basket, but do not expect much on the offensive end.

Who’s Out:
While Daniel Emerson never quite lived up to his potential, the 6-9 sophomore would have battled for a starting job with Evans had he not opted to transfer. Emerson did start 24 games last year, only averaging 4.9 points and 3.7 rebounds, but the loss would be much, much more significant if it was not the for the group of newcomers who are ready to take over the struggling frontcourt. Little used forward Raed Mostafa will also not be suiting up for the Hilltoppers next season. The perimeter has lost a little depth with the departures of Benson Callier and Butch Jointer. Callier, who started ten games before leaving the team midway through his senior campaign, averaged 6.9 points per game. Jointer played an important role off the bench, but losing a guard or two will not be a concern for WKU fans.

Who’s In:
Japeth Aguilar is the expected savior of the frontcourt. The 6-9, 210 pound Filipino sat out last year due to transfer rules and that year in the program will be extremely helpful. Aguilar will be a big time shot blocking threat, but it is his offensive versatility that gives him so much potential. He can score with his back to the basket, but he will step out and hit the mid-range jumper as well. D.J. Magley, at 6-9 and 260 pounds, and B.J. Frazier, at 6-7 and 210 pounds, will give Coach Darrin Horn some more options up front. The return of 6-9 center A’Darius Pegues, if he returns from a knee injury, would suddenly turn the frontcourt from a question to an asset. However, the most highly touted newcomer of them all is small forward Steffphon Pettigrew. His 33.6 points per game as a high school senior is proof of his scoring prowess. At 6-5 Pettigrew will be groomed to take over the Courtney Lee role after his departure following this season. For now Pettigrew, the state of Kentucky’s reigning Mr. Basketball, will likely provide a spark off the bench.

Who to Watch:
Until Pettigrew becomes a proven commodity, this is Lee’s team. The 6-5 senior averaged 17.3 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.5 steals last season. He is a quality shooter from anywhere on the floor and the prototypical do-it-all superstar. Lee will take all the big shots for the Hilltoppers, but there are plenty of other options if the defense concentrates on Lee too much. Ty Rogers is just as prolific as Lee from long range and Orlando Mendez-Valdez is the most consistent shooter on the team. Tyrone Brazelton will be added to the long list of three point threats, but it is his point guard abilities that make him so valuable. The turnovers were a little high during his first year in the program, but the 5-11 Park Forest, Illinois product should keep those numbers in check now that he is a senior. The most intriguing prospect in the WKU backcourt is A.J. Slaughter. The 6-3 guard had a decent freshman campaign, averaging 6.1 points per game, but is ready for much bigger things with that year of experience. Rogers might be penciled in as the starter during the summer, but Slaughter could take it over before the season even gets underway.

Final Projection:
Considering there were virtually no scoring threats in the paint to collapse the defense last year, it is amazing how well the team shot from behind the arc. If Siakam, Walker or one of the newcomers can become that scoring threat inside, WKU will knock down an incredible amount of three pointers at an incredible percentage. And that is the great equalizer in college basketball. If the three is falling, the Hilltoppers can beat anybody. But before they get to that point, they have to beat South Alabama to win the Sun Belt.

Projected Post-season Tournament: NCAA

Projected Starting Five:
Tyrone Brazelton, Senior, Guard, 12.8 points per game
A.J. Slaughter, Sophomore, Guard, 6.1 points per game
Courtney Lee, Senior, Guard, 17.3 points per game
Mike Walker, Senior, Forward, 1.8 points per game
D.J. Magley, Freshman, Forward, DNP last season

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