In a few days, fans will walk through the gates at E.A. Diddle Arena on the campus of Western Kentucky to get their first glimpse of the 2015-16 Hilltoppers against an opposing team when Lindsey Wilson visits for an exhibition on Nov. 2. Inching closer to Monday's tip-off, the team held its annual media on Wednesday afternoon and the common theme from amongst the players was that head coach Ray Harper's latest squad is physical, big and has a depth of talent.
With twice as many newcomers (10) as there are returning veterans (5), Ray Harper has enjoyed the competition that such a roster turnover creates. While it has been a struggle to figure out an eventual starting five, the practices, which have been described as “intense,” has allowed WKU's fourth-year head coach to assess a number of varying player combinations.
“Any time there is competition, it’s good,” said Harper. “If you asked me today for a starting lineup, I couldn’t give you one. We have had one real, 40-minute intra-squad game, and the guys who charted out and ranked the highest out of that are not necessarily the ones who do it on a daily basis. That’s not a bad thing. I think this is a team that you could see a different leading scorer on a lot of different nights. We can play a lot of different lineups and a lot of different combinations. This is good. This is a team that has the potential to do a lot of different things.”
Among the new interchangeable parts is graduate transfer Aaron Cosby. A Louisville native, Cosby spent two seasons in the Big East, starting 58 games for Seton Hall, before spending a year at Illinois, where he started 13 of 19 games in a injury-shortened season. Filling the role of an off guard looking for his shot at his prior stops, Cosby will spend time at both guard positions at WKU.
“We have a lot of interchangeable pieces, both offensively and defensively,” Cosby told WKU Insider. “You'll see a lot of different line-ups out there and I think that's what is going to make us a good team.”
It could also mean seeing a pair of 7-footers in junior forward Ben Lawson (7'1) and freshman center Nathan Smith (7'2) on the floor at the same time.
“There’s no question they could play together, because Ben really is a stretch four,” Harper said. “That’s what he is. I think he really likes being able to face the basket. Nathan is the total opposite. He understands that he’s a five. He’s not afraid of contact. He’s a little farther along that we anticipated.
“I think you could play those guys together no problem, and it would actually be fun to see how they play out there together.”
Sporting shoulder pads and a chest plate for practice, Lawson agrees that physical practices and depth with play large roles in team success.
“It's very physical,” he said of the practices. “I have a bruised chest. We've been going at each other, but we have to suck it up and keep going. It's great to see everyone competing.”
Justin Johnson, a sophomore averaged 15 minutes in 31 games last season, likes the energy that the many newcomers have brought to the team and how they are helping to quickly shape the team's personality.
“I like this team a lot,” said Johnson, a product of Perry Co. Central in Hazard, Ky. “There are some high-energy guys, some tough guys in this locker room that are going to come out and bust you in the mouth every night. It's a different-level team here now. Coach never has to coach effort in practice.”
While the starting five may not yet be known and the personality still a work in progress, Harper is pleased with direction the players are headed.
“A team will always take on some type of identity as the season goes on,” he said. “What that identity will be with this team is still a little unknown, but I think it will be a team that you’re going to see that will compete and fight you, night in and night out, and they’re not afraid of the moment. We’ve got some guys that I wouldn’t be afraid to go into a real tough battle with them. I’ve seen it on a daily basis with these guys. They’ve probably been the most consistent group that we’ve had day in and day out as far as coming to work and being prepared.”
WKU, projected to finish sixth in Conference USA, will play a pair of exhibition games, with a Nov. 6 contest against Kentucky Wesleyan scheduled four days after the Lindsay-Wilson game. The Hilltoppers will officially open the season at home against Campbellsville on Wednesday, Nov. 14.