For the few hundred of you who read this blog every season, you know that I am one of the biggest WKU Hilltopper fans around. This blog started with the Darrin Horn era in 2004-05 and has included varying degrees of Hilltopper coverage over the last five seasons. I have always tried to balanced the big picture with infusions of Topper talk to illustrate points that are relevant to the whole. This season, I would like to be more intentional about that.
WKU might be the best non-Power team in the land this year. That is not a homer statement. You can find many sportswriters or other "experts" who put WKU on the really short list of teams that may go deep in March. Xavier and Dayton expect to be very good, all the while insisting that they are "Power" teams. Gonzaga and Butler are usual suspects and while the Indiana breed of Bulldogs should be nothing short of fantastic, the eastern Washington strain of Bulldogs are a bit of an unknown this season. Gonzaga has been to eleven straight NCAA tourneys and most of those were expected. They have some sorting out and proving to do this season.
Beyond those names, two keep popping up as threats from non-Power land: Siena and WKU. They seem to have it all. Recent NCAA success? Check. Lots of returning talent? Check. Hefty non-conference schedules? Check (Siena: @Temple, vs St. John's, @Georgia Tech, @Northern Iowa, host Saint Joseph's; WKU: NIT Tipoff [UW-Milwaukee tonight, potentially LSU, UConn, Duke, others], @South Carolina, vs Vanderbilt, @Louisville, @Southern Illinois, host Murray State and Mississippi State). These two will be sneaking up on no one this season.
So, I hope to report on WKU as a sort of example of what a contending non-Power team's trek through the season looks like. A few preliminaries are in order.
1. This team is not shying away from it's Sun Belt favorite role in the least. Coach Ken McDonald and his players have openly affirmed that status in the media. In their mind, they are trying to make the publicity and expectations work for them instead of being coy about them.
2. Want to make your mark as a non-Power team? Go on the road. The Toppers will not play a regular season home game until Dec 6, their sixth game. Now, they could play one before that...if they lose to UW-Milwaukee or LSU in Baton Rouge this week, they may host a consolation bracket. But this team is not thinking about that. They are expecting to play in MSG.
3. Why so confident? They return four starters from last season. They have two senior guards, one of whom is the preseason Sun Belt POY (A.J. Slaughter). They have a senior big man. The other two starters are rough-and-tumble, experienced juniors. They have one of the top JUCO bigs in the country (Cliff Dixon) and a SR transfer center coming off the bench (Nemanja Milosovic). They have one of the stronger recruiting classes coming in as well (including Alabama 6A POY Jordan Swing). WKU went to the Sweet 16 two years ago and last season they beat Illinois before falling on a last-second shot to Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA tourney. There are not a lot of holes in this team.
So, through telling their story, you will not only get insight into one of this season's "it" teams, but also see what makes "mid-majors" so lovable. The road games. Playing in a conference that reaches from Miami to Denver. The in-conference rivalries. All the while, this team will be playing knowing that their At-Large status hangs by a thread in every game.
They begin this afternoon at 4.30pm in Baton Rouge, LA, against UW-Milwaukee in the "LSU Pod" of the NIT Tipoff. Milwaukee is another non-Power team with fairly recent success looking to make its mark. But, their roster is not as strong as WKU's and Tony Boyle, their top guard, is not likely to play. The winner likely gets LSU in a chance to jump into the national conversation before Thanksgiving by punching a ticket to New York City to play on the biggest stage in hoops.
And, while the Tops may not go quite this far in media interviews, I would bet that out of the four teams in Baton Rouge, WKU sees themselves as the favorite to get to NYC.
Tonight's GOI (Games of Import...first one!)
--Auburn at Missouri State. The Tigers were charging VERY hard at the end of last season. Let's see if it carries over in a road trip to a Valley Boy.
--VMI at Richmond. The wild child Keydets take their blistering pace into Richmond, an A-10 sleeper pick.
--FAU at SE Louisiana. The Belt needs to win these kinds of games to make a move upward this year.
--NIT Tipoff. Aforementioned, with pods at Arizona State, UConn, Duke, and LSU.