It's still early, and I figure if you are reading this blog right now, you either 1) are a WKU Hilltopper fan or 2) are so anxious for hoops that you will read just about anything hoops-related. In either case, the next few days are for you! I will put WKU's non-conference opponents onto the Ark two-by-two for the next six days. That will get us to next Friday's Hilltopper Hysteria season kickoff. After that, there will be a full Sun Belt preview and the release of a preseason bracket before actual games begin in early November. That will be the only bracket until sometime after Christmas when the conference season starts to crank up. I will blog most days from here until April, though. With that said, let us look at the two teams that the Toppers will face on their season-opening two-game road swing.
Kennesaw State Owls (12-17, 10-10 A-Sun)
The Owls lost nine of their final ten games to end last season, but some injuries contributed to that slide. However, they do return the cream of their perimeter scoring including four starters who averaged double figures, and they have added nine new players, seven of which are freshmen. The lost starter scored under 5 ppg. The Owls have nearly all of their top players back.
It starts with senior PG Golden Ingle, a transfer from none other than Western Kentucky, who tossed in 16.6 ppg and distributed 6.1 apg as well. His backcourt mates Ronell Wooten (15.5 ppg) and Andre Morgan (12.8 ppg, A-Sun All-Freshman) are capable scorers as well. The other returning starter is 6-4 F Brent Ragsdale (11.2 ppg). While the returning players are smallish, the Owls have some size coming in this season. FR bigs John Scott Allison (7-0, from Scotland), Alex Cornett (6-10), and three other FR 6-6 or taller will undoubtedly get chances to contribute early in the post.
The Owls like a moderately paced game (#158 in tempo last season). They were one of the worst defensive teams in the country last year (#328 of 334 in total Def Efficiency) as teams scored nearly at will by shooting 56.1% from 2-pt range. That is not a typo. They were #333...next to last in the entire nation. The Owls' strength was creating turnovers and turnover margin. They were #50 in taking care of the ball and they were #23 in opponents' turnover rate. That is how they won their twelve games.
This is no gimme for the Tops. This will be the Owls' biggest home game in history and the first "real" game for both teams. WKU has superior talent, but this one should scare Topper fans. Remember Troy last season? KSU will be a similar environment and a similar situation: an experienced team playing the biggest home game in their history.
Georgia Bulldogs (15-15, 5-11 SEC)
Is this the year that the Dawgs make the jump? Maybe, but those hopes took a hit this summer when Georgia decided not to renew the scholarship of their top returning inside player (Younes Idrissi). Apparently, he was "not living up to student-athlete expections." That's vague enough. But, UGA is stacked on the perimeter. Levi Stukes, Sundiata Gaines, Channing Toney, Mike Mercer, and Billy Humphrey are all excellent players. In fact, those guys were UGA's top five scorers from last season. They have another good wing in Terrance Woodbury who had his inaugural campaign cut short by a stress fracture. They have one of the more experience and deep backcourts around this season.
Like KSU, their concern lies up front. Dave Bliss and Steve Newman play hard, but possess limited skill sets. Felton nabbed 6-10 C Albert Jackson from Hopkinsville, KY, and he may need to contribute early. The Dawgs also have Takais Brown, a 6-8 forward from talent-rich Flint, MI, coming in this season. If UGA is to make any noise in the tough SEC, they will need one of the big guys to step up in a major way.
Georgia played a crisp pace (48th in the country) and some good defense (#62 Def Efficiency) last season. That's probably faster than Felton likes to play, and that he probably wants the pace slower and defense even better. The offense was more pedestrian (#153 Off Eff). In fact, of SEC teams, only lowly Ole Miss had a less efficient offense. Furthermore, among Ken Pomeroy's offensive statistics, UGA failed to crack the top 100 in ANY of them. The Dawgs achieved their .500 record with D. If they can maintain that level of defense and get something from the interior to open up shots and lanes for their talented backcourt, the Dawgs might make the jump this year. If they struggle inside again, there is probably no room to climb in the SEC.
The Toppers will have their hands full in Athens. Stopping that battery of guards will be a challenge.
Previews for Tennessee State and Towson coming tomorrow or on the weekend.