Western Kentucky is anything but a typical No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Don’t confuse them with teams that come from conferences like the Patriot League, Big South or Mid-Eastern Athletic.
The Hilltoppers have been to a Final Four, beating Kansas for third place in 1971. They have produced first-team all-Americans like Jim McDaniels and Clem Haskins. They are making their 23rd appearance in the NCAA Tournament and are 4-3 in the NCAA Tournament in the past five years, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 2008.
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“We have banners hanging in the rafters …” said second-year coach Ray Harper. “Final Four, Sweet 16s … We’re in the process of trying to get this program back and be a perennial power in the country.”
So what the heck are they doing as a 16 seed going up against No. 1 seed Kansas around 8:50 Friday night in the Sprint Center?
The Hilltoppers, 20-15, suffered a siege of injuries midway through the season that cost them point guard Jamal Crook for 11 games; shooting guard T.J. Price for three games; and backup point guard Kevin Kaspar for three games.
Consequently, Western Kentucky lost nine of 12 games between Dec. 16 and Jan. 26. That dropped the Hilltoppers into fourth place in the Sun Belt Conference’s East Division, forcing them to win four games in the conference tournament, which they did to for league’s automatic NCAA berth.
They did it the hard way as well last year. Harper replaced Ken McDonald as head coach after a 5-11 start, and the Hilltoppers again won four games in the Sun Belt tournament, becoming the first school in NCAA history to win four games in four days to win its conference tournament in consecutive seasons.
That earned Western Kentucky a No. 16 seed and an opening-round game. The Hilltoppers overcame a 16-point deficit over the last five minutes and beat Mississippi Valley State 59-58 in front of a crowd that included President Obama in Louisville. Though the Hilltoppers lost two days later to No. 1 seed and eventual champion Kentucky 81-66, that experience has them believing they can be the first No. 16 team to beat a No. 1 when they face Kansas.
“Last year when we played Kentucky,” Price said, “we were in that game. We came out playing hard, didn’t worry about what everybody else was saying.
“I feel like we’re coming to this game knowing that we can beat Kansas, not just compete with them or be happy to be in the NCAA Tournament. It’s different from last year. We won the play-in game and were happy we made it. This year we want to (advance) instead of just being glad to be here.”
Before practicing at the Sprint Center, the Hilltoppers watched Southern University, another No. 16 seed, throw a scare into No. 1 Gonzaga before losing 64-58, and that gave them some inspiration.
“We’re not trying to base ourselves off what they’re doing,” sophomore forward George Fant said. “We’re going to do what we do best, which is play ball. It’s what we all grew up doing. We all wanted to be on this stage. We’re here now. We just want to go there and play as best as we can, try to get a win.
“It’s hard to tell the younger guys not to be nervous. I’m going to be nervous when I first get out there. It’s going to be a hard game, they’re physical, they’ll get a lot of calls, but you’ve got to go out there and play through things.”
Western Kentucky is one of only 25 teams in the nation with wins in three of the last five NCAA Tournaments, but even toiling in the shadow of the powerful Louisville and Kentucky programs, the Hilltoppers’ 41 20-victory seasons rank sixth in NCAA history, and they entered the season ranked eighth in winning percentage (.667) and 17th in victories with 1,659.
“Those two schools have great tradition, along with us,” Fant said. “They’ve been winning for a long time. They have great fan bases … they’re in big cities. We’re just in little Bowling Green. We get great players that come through Western.
“We’re not really worried about Louisville or Kentucky. We don’t try to live in their shadow, outdo them or anything. We just play basketball.”