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Western Kentucky players, coaches happy to be back on campus with a ‘little bit of basketball’ normalcy

When the Western Kentucky University men’s basketball team returned from the canceled Conference USA Tournament in March, things changed rapidly in the wake of COVID-19.

Players moved back home and began preparing for online classes. Locker room meetings and weight room workouts moved to Zoom and FaceTime, and head coach Rick Stansbury even discovered TV shows like The Office, Breaking Bad and Stranger Things on Netflix.

But most of all, the Hilltoppers waited for their return.

That wait ended in recent weeks when the team cautiously resumed activities on campus as part of WKU’s staggered restart plan.

Rick Stansbury

“It was just good to get everybody back,” WKU head coach Rick Stansbury said. “That’s our comfort zone. As coaches and players, that’s our lives. Never in my 40 years are you away from your players and away from the gym basically for four months. Just to get the guys back in here, give them a little structure and somewhere to go. We’re bringing them back slowly.

“It’s still a long time, and we hope it’s November, but I think the biggest thing was getting everybody back right now, getting them around each other and just gradually bringing them back with a little bit of basketball.”

WKU’s 2020-21 regular season is scheduled to begin Nov. 10 with a visit to Louisville. Last Sunday marked 100 days from that opener.

But like everything else in the country, Stansbury noted that the Hilltoppers’ progress toward their season is “week by week and day by day.”

Even still, he said he’s looking forward to classes beginning at WKU on Aug. 24 and having his players working out right now, even if restricted.

“It’s going to come down to what’s smart and safe for everybody,” he said.

The Hilltoppers have opted for small groups of four players for individual workouts and weight training. The same players go through individuals and weights together to limit exposure across the team.

WKU has recently opted for small groups of four players for individual workouts and weight training. (WKU photo)

Stansbury said the team may stay on campus for the duration of August through the start of school instead of allowing the players to return home like they normally would.

Because college athletics can’t create an air-tight “bubble” like the NBA, Stansbury said his program has to focus on stressing and following protocols, and trusting that his players will strive to do the right things when they leave WKU’s facilities.

“Is it inconvenient for everybody? Absolutely it is,” he said. “But we also understand we’re in times no one has ever seen before. Just getting our guys back, no question we’re trying to do all the protocols that’s put in place with us. With all those protocols, I feel like our guys are about as safe as they can be right here.

“Our athletic department and our medical staff has done a tremendous job. Being able to create some policies and to allow us to get these young men back out here, while also understanding the safety of the student-athlete comes first.”

Stansbury’s group that has returned to campus represents his most experienced team yet at WKU.

The Hilltoppers return four players – senior guards Taveion Hollingsworth and Josh Anderson, redshirt senior forward Carson Williams and sophomore guard Jordan Rawls – who each started at least 16 games last season.

Added to that senior group is transfer guard Kenny Cooper, who was a three-year starter at Lipscomb and sat out last year at WKU. The Hilltoppers also recently signed transfer guard Luke Frampton from Davidson, one of the top shooters in the Atlantic 10.

Returning in the middle will be junior center Charles Bassey, a 2019 preseason first team All-American who suffered a tibial plateau fracture in his left leg 10 games into the 2019-20 season.

Bassey has been rehabbing every day at WKU throughout the spring and is participating with his teammates through all workouts and weight training. He’s not yet been cleared for contact, but Stansbury said he expects to have the big man ready to go for the upcoming season.

WKU’s roster features eight players who have combined for 5,786 career Division I points. The Hilltoppers also added a promising group of newcomers that includes freshmen Dayvion McKnight and Kylen Milton, as well as junior-college transfer Kevin Osawe – three players Stansbury said have impressed through the limited workouts.

“I couldn’t ask for more as people and the character and the work ethic that these guys have right here,” Stansbury said. “I’ve had some good groups – this is definitely the best group from that standpoint.”

Stansbury was asked what he expects from the 2020-21 season, and he shrugged off the question by noting that he’s not planning too far down the line with the news changing every day.

But for now – even if it’s not quite the same – he and the Hilltoppers are back on the court, and for that he’s thankful.

“Hopefully it makes everybody understand how fragile this game is – how fragile life is sometimes,” Stansbury said.

From Western Kentucky University

WKU resumed basketball activities on campus as part of the staggered restart plan. (WKU photo)

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