College Basketball Nation: Teeng Akol

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Looking for something interesting in the Thursday night session at the KFC Yum! Center? Well, we've got the NCAA Tournament's No. 1 overall seed and the defending national champions each playing and possibly charting a collision course toward one another. Is that something you might be interested in?

Here's a closer look at the two late games here in Louisville:

No. 1 seed Kentucky (32-2) vs. No. 16 Western Kentucky (16-18), 6:50 p.m. ET

What to watch: Western Kentucky was 9-18 on Feb. 18. Now the Hilltoppers have an NCAA tournament win under their belts and will face the No. 1 overall seed in what also happens to be an in-state rivalry. So they're playing with house money and can give Kentucky their best shot with no pressure on their backs. The Wildcats will open up in front of an extremely friendly crowd, but they need to shake off the disappointing loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament final.

Who to watch: Player of the year candidate Anthony Davis begins his first and only NCAA tournament, and the Wildcats will likely go as far as he can carry them. Western Kentucky's Teeng Akol, a rail-thin 6-foot-11 junior, has the unenviable task of trying to contain Davis. Don't be surprised to see the Hilltoppers play a lot of zone, as Vanderbilt did with great success. Do be surprised if they come close to approaching the 53-30 rebounding edge they held over Mississippi Valley State in Round 1.

Why to watch: Kentucky is the commanding favorite in this tournament, but don't forget this team starts three freshmen who have never experienced March Madness as players. They'll need to work out the butterflies early. Western Kentucky has manufactured two ridiculous comebacks, first just to get to the NCAA tournament and then in erasing a late 16-point deficit in Tuesday night's win. If the Hilltoppers find a way to upset the Wildcats and become the first No. 16 seed to oust a No. 1, the city of Bowling Green may never stop partying.

What they're saying: "It was a very intense practice. We don't like losing. Coach Cal doesn't like losing, so we tried to pick it up a little bit. We tried to get focused on what we need to do going into this tournament. That has been our main goal all year." -- Kentucky guard Darius Miller on the mood of the team after the Vanderbilt loss.

"You don't want to start out the game bad against a team like this because ... it's kind of like horse racing. When you're racing a really big horse, you don't want to get behind too much because the race is only so long." -- Western Kentucky forward Vinny Zollo.

Of note: Kentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Western Kentucky leading scorer Derrick Gordon were high school teammates and close friends at St. Patrick in New Jersey. "It's like a dream come true for both of us," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "I can't wait to play them." Kidd-Gilchrist will likely be assigned to defend Gordon. ... Zollo committed to Kentucky as a high school freshman but dropped his pledge after Billy Gillispie was fired in 2009. ... The two schools haven't played since Western Kentucky upset then-No. 4 Kentucky 64-52 in November 2001.

No. 8 seed Iowa State (22-10) vs. No. 9 seed UConn (20-13), approximately 9:20 p.m.

What to watch: UConn is the defending national champion, but Iowa State is actually the higher seed. And don't discount the Cyclones, who were good enough to beat Kansas, Baylor and Kansas State this season. The Huskies, who needed to win two games in the Big East tournament last week to feel secure about getting here, have looked indifferent at times this season, especially in their perimeter defense. That could spell trouble against an Iowa State team that was one of the most prolific 3-point shooting clubs in the country while making nearly nine treys per game.

Who to watch: Iowa State forward Royce White is the only player in the country to lead his team in scoring, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. So, yeah, he can do it all. But can the 6-foot-8 Royce do it all effectively inside against UConn shotblocker Andre Drummond?

Why to watch: The Huskies begin their title defense, and with Jim Calhoun back on the bench they have to be taken seriously. This is still a talented team with two future pros in Drummond and Jeremy Lamb, though the chemistry has seemed off most of the season. Iowa State is better than many think. Whoever wins this game has a chance to cause No. 1 Kentucky some problems in the next round.

What they're saying: "I mean, Kemba Walker's not coming back, is he? Obviously, we know Connecticut is one of the most storied programs in all of college basketball. We know they're the defending national champs. [But] we feel like we earned our way to be here, too. We respect them, but I don't think there's like a fear factor with them at all." -- Iowa State guard Scott Christopherson.

"You definitely hear it from the fans. They definitely want to see the UConn-Kentucky matchup. We're just trying to beat Iowa State and then play Saturday." -- Connecticut forward Alex Oriakhi.

Of note: Calhoun is 16-1 all time in the first round, with a 2008 loss to San Diego his only blemish. ... The Huskies haven't been seeded this low since they were ninth in the 1992 tournament. ... Iowa State scores 36.4 percent of its points from 3-point range, the fifth-highest among power six conference teams. Connecticut is allowing its opponents to score 33.9 percent of their points from 3-point range, the second-highest rate among power six conference teams.
Don’t panic.

Down by double-digits Tuesday night, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers surveyed their situation and encouraged one another. They were down by 13 points to North Texas with 12:51 remaining in the Sun Belt tournament title game, but it wasn't an unfamiliar situation.

The team had overcome a double-digit deficit in a quarterfinal victory over Arkansas-Little Rock with the same ferocity that transformed WKU from a 5-14 squad in early January to an NCAA tournament team Tuesday night after a 74-70 win over North Texas.

[+] EnlargeTeeng Akol
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireTeeng Akol and the Hilltoppers overcame a 13-point deficit to beat North Texas and earn a bid to the NCAA tournament.
The 7-seed Hilltoppers stormed back against a feisty and talented UNT team behind gutsy efforts by Oklahoma State transfer Teeng Akol (career-high 23 points) and freshman George Fant (17 points), who helped Western Kentucky earn its 22nd NCAA tournament bid overall and first since 2009.

“We were just saying, 'Be calm. We’ve been here before. It’s not a big deal.' Our whole goal is to come out and be the tougher team, win or lose,” Fant told ESPN.com. “We just want the other team after the game to say, 'That team is really tough because they fought the whole game.'”

But Tuesday’s comeback really started two months ago when Ken McDonald lost his job the morning after a controversial loss to Louisiana-Lafayette. That January loss ended in overtime with the Ragin’ Cajuns using six players on their final, game-winning possession. It was also Western Kentucky’s fifth defeat in six games.

The school immediately gave assistant Ray Harper the interim head coaching job. He had to reassure a flummoxed squad and stop the bleeding.

“We were a team that really had to become a tougher basketball team,” Harper said. “I thought we got better each day. We got tougher and that’s why we’re still playing."

Don’t panic.

Fant quickly culled his fellow freshman teammates -- the Hilltoppers have seven freshmen on their roster -- and stressed calm. Harper had helped recruit them. Fant trusted him.

The season could be salvaged, the young leader told them.

“I’ve been knowing Coach Harper for a long time and I know what he’s capable of. I just told my team, ‘You guys, don’t panic,’” Fant said. “I think our intensity picked up a lot [after he arrived].”

On his first official day as interim head coach, Harper called every player into a room for individual meetings. He issued his expectations and demanded more toughness. The 'Toppers would have to fight for two halves the rest of the season. No excuses.

They embraced that trait in the weeks that followed Harper’s promotion. Beginning with a Jan. 21 win over UALR, the Sun Belt’s West division champ, the Hilltoppers won 10 of their next 14 games and Harper was named the program's permanent head coach on Feb. 19.

That's looking like a wise move these days, with 15-18 WKU the first team in four years to advance to the NCAA tournament with a losing record.

On Tuesday, North Texas freshman Tony Mitchell (18 points) put the Mean Green on his back. But Akol (5.8 ppg) promised Harper the he wouldn’t let him down after scoring 16 points in his team’s three previous games combined. He didn’t care about leading the team in scoring. His goal was to challenge Mitchell and fight the way Harper wanted his team to fight.

“We just went in there aggressive,” Akol said. “Tony Mitchell is an unbelievable player and I’m just trying to go attack him every time I get the ball. Go at him.”

Don’t panic.

Sensing tightness in his team after North Texas took that 13-point advantage, Harper reminded the Hilltoppers that they’d faced previous obstacles. And for this program, that word encompasses matters that they’ve encountered on the court and off it.

They couldn’t panic, he told them. He asked them to “nibble” at North Texas’ lead.

Three minutes after the Mean Green seized that double-digit edge, WKU had made the Sun Belt tournament title matchup down to a four-point game.

That’s when Harper cracked a joke.

“I said, ‘You guys are catching up too quick.’ And they laughed,” Harper said. “I just wanted them to loosen up.”

And not panic with a shot at the NCAA tournament on the line.

It seems that this season, the Hilltoppers rarely do.

Highlights: W Kentucky 74, North Texas 70

March, 6, 2012
3/06/12
10:47
PM ET

Teeng Akol scored 23 points Western Kentucky beats North Texas 74-70 in the Sun Belt tournament championship game.

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