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Unbeaten Louisville expects big challenge from talented Western Kentucky on Tuesday night

By Russ Brown
Kentucky Today

Usually when college basketball coaches set up an invitational, their modus operandi is to invite a bunch of teams they can beat and call it a “classic.”

Not Louisville’s Chris Mack, the impetus and organizer behind the Wade Houston Tipoff Classic being played with nine teams over 10 days in the KFC Yum! Center. True, the Cardinals opened with an easy win over Evansville, ranked No. 321 by Ken Pomeroy. And yes, they defeated No. 313 Prairie View 86-64 Sunday night.

But in between, Mack scheduled Seton Hall, a formidable Big East opponent, and nearly paid the price before eking out a 71-70 win when the Pirates missed a game-trying free throw with 0.7 showing on the clock.

Louisville’s Jae’Lyn Withers (24) drives past Prairie View’s Jawaun Daniels (22) on Sunday night. (UofL photo)

And now Mack’s shorthanded group faces another stern challenge against Western Kentucky (2-1), arguably the best team in the field at this early juncture. The Cards (3-0) and Hilltoppers will square off at 6 p.m. Tuesday on the ACC Network and it promises to be every bit as hard-fought and physical as the Seton Hall game.

And the Cards are likely to be without forward Samuel Williamson for the second straight game due to an injury. After suffering a dislocated toe against Seton Hall, he joins teammates Malik Williams, Charles Mindlen and Josh Nickelberry on the sidelines.

Western already has two impressive victories and one impressive loss after accepting a late invitation to the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic in Sioux Falls, S.D., when Creighton pulled out due to positive coronavirus tests.

First, the Toppers defeated Missouri Valley Conference favorite and frequent NCAA Tournament visitor, Northern Iowa 93-87. Then they dispatched Memphis (75-69), which CBS Sports national college basketball writer Gary Parrish ranked No. 22 and a team expected to challenge No. 17/18 Houston for the AAC title.

Finally, WKU built a 10-point lead over No. 15 West Virginia in the second half of the championship game Friday, but couldn’t hold on down the stretch and lost, 75-69.

“We know, which we already knew, how good we can be this year,” fifth-year forward Carson Williams said. “Obviously, we are disappointed with the outcome, but the fight we put up against (West Virginia) and the other teams we played in this tournament just shows what we have the opportunity to do this year.”

Mack didn’t need convincing. He knew that with the Toppers’ returning experience and talent they would be a load for every team on their schedule, Louisville being no exception. WKU welcomed back its top three scorers and rebounders and five of its best scorers from 2000-01.

UofL’s biggest problems figure to be 6-foot-11, 235-pound pro-in-waiting Charles Bassey, the rugged 6-foot-5 Williams and 6-foot-2 senior point guard Taveion Hollingsworth out of Lexington Dunbar High School.

Western Kentucky center Charles Bassey (left) averaged 15.3 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.2 blocks in 10 games last season. (WKU photo)

“They’re a good team,” Mack said. “They’ve got a lot of talented players. They’ve got some really good playmakers and shooters. I tried to do my best over the offseason to talk Charles into moving on to the NBA. He wouldn’t do it, so we’re going to have to contend with one of the best frontcourt players in the entire country.

“If we rebound like we did tonight we’ll look like Gulliver’s Travels, the Lilliputians around the rim. He’s really good. We saw that last year against two of our experienced post players, Malik and Steve (Enoch), and I don’t see those guys on our bench right now. So we’re going to have to figure out a way.”

Bassey had 14 points and nine rebounds in WKU’s 71-54 loss to UofL in Nashville last season, one of the last games he played before an injury sidelined him. He is healthy now after a broken leg and surgery ended his 2020 season only 10 games into it. He was named preseason Player of the Year in Conference USA and in the three games in the Bad Boy tournament he averaged 15.7 points, 10.0 rebounds and 3.7 blocks.

“Wednesday (vs. Northern Iowa) was my first game back since last year, December 7,” Bassey said after recording 21 points, 14 rebounds and seven blocks in the win over Memphis. “It was pretty good just getting back to my old self and playing to my capability. Memphis is a pretty good team, but we’re a pretty good team.”

Williams, who is a muscular 240 pounds and has a variety of moves under the basket, collected 14 points and nine rebounds against the Tigers and averaged 9.7 ppg and 6.7 rpg.

Hollingsworth leads the team in scoring and is surehanded with the ball, having committed only three turnovers in 98 minutes. Western will attack the basket — especially Hollingsworth, 6-1 freshman Dayvion McKnight and Williams — trying to draw fouls or kick the ball out to an open shooter. The Toppers have made 11 more free throws than their opponents have attempted, and when they go to the line they don’t miss often (52-for-63, 82.5 percent).

Russ Brown covers University of Louisville sports for Kentucky Today.

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