When 5-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American Mitchell Robinson decided he will skip college and spend the school year working out in preparation for the NBA Draft, Western Kentucky lost the most talented player in school history before he’d ever played a game.
And maybe, just maybe, the Hilltoppers are better off for it.
Only the diehard college basketball fans — the ones who subscribe to recruiting services and scour Jeff Goodman’s annual list of transfers — really saw it, but Western Kentucky has been the offseason’s most fascinating program.
With Robinson on board the Hilltoppers were likely a Top 25 team with a roster that wouldn’t look out of place in Lexington or Louisville.
WKU coach Rick Stansbury had already put together a team to make a run for the Conference USA title even before then assistant Shammond Williams convinced his godson, Robinson, to spurn the likes of Kansas and Kentucky and join him in Bowling Green.
But that’s where the underdog story took a turn. Robinson enrolled at WKU in the summer, then Williams abruptly resigned in July. Robinson left school, visiting LSU and Kansas. But it wasn’t clear if the likely one-and-done star could have been eligible at either school after registering in classes at Western Kentucky.
So Robinson returned to WKU, presumably to play one season then declare for the NBA Draft as soon as soon as the Hilltoppers played their final game. But Robinson’s return to Western Kentucky was more brief and confusing than Agent Cooper’s to Twin Peaks.
So no, Western Kentucky is no longer going to be that trendy darkhorse pick to make the Final Four. But Rick Stansbury has himself what could be a very good mid-major team. The incoming recruiting class is still mighty impressive.
Guard Josh Anderson is a consensus Top 60 signee while Taveion Hollingsworth is a ridiculously good shooter who was Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball as a senior in high school. JUCO big man Moustapha Diagne was also a Top 100 prospect coming out of high school.
The Hilltoppers also add a set of transfers that will make an immediate impact. Darius Thompson was a consistent contributor to some very good Virginia teams and in the brief periods at Kansas he was fully healthy, Dwight Coleby looked like the kind of player who could consistently produce double-doubles in Conference USA.
WKU also adds Lamonte Bearden, who averaged 13.7 points per game at Buffalo where he led the team to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances.
It was fun to imagine what that lineup could do built around Mitchell Robinson, but given Stansbury’s history, deep down he has to know harbouring a super-talented player who doesn’t really want to be there isn’t worth the trouble.
After all, Stansbury has been there before. Remember Renardo Sidney? Recruiting sites had him ranked above John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Kawhi Leonard when he signed with Stansbury at Mississippi State.
These days, Sidney is best remembered for getting in a fight with a teammate in the bleachers at a preseason tournament and sitting out a season and a half due to an NCAA investigation.
Maybe it’s crazy, but perhaps it will be even more compelling to see what Stansbury can do with the group he now has. Had Robinson stuck around it’s likely the Hilltoppers could have either soared to unprecedented heights. It’s equally likely they could have crashed and burned amid turmoil and discontent.
If Mitchell Robinson learned from the mistakes of a long, up-and-down career there’s still a good chance this can be a fantastic season for Western Kentucky, and perhaps the start of something that could last.