I’m a proud alum of Western Kentucky University, but I have to admit I’ve paid precious little attention to the WKU men’s basketball team this season.
I saw WKU play at Louisville in December and wasn’t too impressed. I knew coach Ken McDonald was fired mid-season (why did Western talk about firing him at the end of last season and not go ahead and do it?), Ray Harper was named interim coach and somewhere along the way Harper was elevated to head coach although the Hilltoppers still seemed to be losing.
When your only appearance on ESPN is because of a loss in overtime when your opponent had six men on the floor and no referee caught it, you’re not having a good season.
Wrapped up with the Mid-South Conference and high school regional tournaments, I hadn’t given any thought to the Sun Belt tournament.
So when co-worker and fellow WKU graduate Jack Watson asked me about the Sun Belt tournament Monday, I had to do some digging to find out what was going on.
Imagine my surprise and delight when I found out Western was playing in the tournament semifinals that night.
I’d already planned on watching the Colonial Athletic Association and West Coast Conferences finals (I love championship week!), but on Monday I spent almost as much time watching the crawl at the bottom of the screen that updated scores, searching for Western’s name.
I kept the recall button on my remote busy Monday, switching between the WCC final, which went overtime, and the Southern Conference final, which went double overtime, all the while keeping up with the Toppers’ progress.
And progress it was. Western, with a record of 13-18 coming into the game, knocked off second-seeded Denver, setting up Tuesday night’s conference championship matchup with North Texas.
I held out little hope for a Western win, seeing how the Mean Green had beaten WKU 84-67 on Jan. 12 in Denton, Texas.
Turns out I should have, and wasn’t there evidence to point to a WKU conference championship?
The game Jan. 12 was the only meeting of the season between the two WKU and North Texas, but then who would have picked the Hilltoppers to knock off second-seeded Arkansas-Little Rock, playing in its home state? (The Sun Belt tournament was played in Hot Springs, Ark.).
Or Denver, a team that won 78-65 over WKU on Jan. 15 in Denver?
Maybe I should have put a little more faith in Ray Harper, named the permanent head coach on Feb. 19 after taking over the program as interim on Jan. 6, one day after the extra-player overtime loss fiasco to Louisiana-Lafayette.
The Hilltoppers closed out the regular season with a win at home against regular-season conference champion Middle Tennessee. That put WKU’s record at 6-7 under Harper, now 10-7 after the tournament.
In 12 years as a head coach at Kentucky Wesleyan and Oklahoma City University, Harper won five national championships and was national runner-up four other times.
He’s been a national coach of the year five times, and his winning percentage at the two schools (NCAA Div. II and NAIA) is .844 (342-63).
So now it’s time for the Toppers to go dancing, and Harper has something impressive to add to his Div. I resumé – a berth in the NCAA tournament.
There will be plenty of people grousing about a team with a losing record being in the NCAA tournament.
But with the Sun Belt being a one-team conference Western’s win doesn’t steal a bid from a bubble team.
Instead it gives me one more reason to love championship week.