Men's Basketball

Deep, experienced Hilltoppers open season Saturday

"The best thing for us is we've got competition at every position," Western Kentucky head coach Ray Harper, right, said.
"The best thing for us is we've got competition at every position," Western Kentucky head coach Ray Harper, right, said. AP

He doesn't have the McDonald's All-Americans and potential first-round draft picks lined up like they do at Kentucky, but Coach Ray Harper's depth at Western Kentucky may be something to behold this season.

The Hilltoppers, who open up Saturday against Austin Peay, were impressive in Monday's 105-84 exhibition victory over Pikeville.

All 11 players who made it onto the floor for WKU scored, with four hitting double digits.

"We played 10 guys double-figure minutes, and I can see us doing that. Nine, 10 guys on a nightly basis," Harper said. "I could even see us going to 11 guys at times. We've got some guys that didn't play (Monday) night that are going to play, I think, as we go forward."

The Hilltoppers, who move from the Sun Belt to Conference USA, return their four leading scorers from a team that finished 20-12 last season. Three are experienced seniors.

"And that's always a key, when you've got seniors that have been there and done that," Harper said. "You look at T.J. Price and George Fant, basically two four-year starters. And then Trency Jackson, who became eligible at midseason last year, just had a tremendous offseason, and I expect a big year out of him. So we've got three guys that basically started pretty much all of last season as well, and that's a bonus."

Price, a guard, averaged 15.5 points and 4.4 rebounds, making 35.8 percent of his three-point attempts last season.

Fant, a forward, added 13.3 points and 6.6 rebounds, while guard Jackson chipped in 10.2 points a game.

Also back in the starting lineup is sophomore guard Chris Harrison-Docks, who averaged 9.9 points and was Freshman of the Year in the Sun Belt Conference.

Those four are likely to be joined by Aleksej Rostov, a junior center who missed last season's final 12 games due to injury.

And then there's that bench. No telling who might crack the starting lineup.

"Again, we just have tremendous competition every day and I tell our guys basically all I know is what I see in practice," Harper said. "That's how guys are going to win jobs. If you're not playing as much as you want, then go bring it in practice and your minutes are going to go up. It's a healthy environment when you've got competition, guys having to compete every day, and that's what we've got at this point."

Most impressive off the bench Monday was Justin Johnson, a freshman out of Perry County Central.

"I think that was the first time that our fans had an opportunity to see him play," Harper said. "We recruited him for three years before we got him. He goes out in his first time ever in a college uniform and he has 18 points and 10 rebounds in 21 minutes. I think he exemplifies what we want to be — a team that plays with passion, plays with energy. I've done this a long time. It doesn't take but one or two guys to change a lot of things. And I think our team can feed off of him, and him being a freshman even."