College Basketball Nation: Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

The best thing about the college basketball offseason is that it ends. The second best thing about the college basketball offseason is that when it ends, it ends so quickly and so exhaustively that within a few days you have to remind yourself that there was ever an offseason in the first place. By mid-November, it's impossible to imagine life without basketball.

We have the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon to thank for that. Hey, it might still be warm outside and the campus dorms are mostly empty here in the dog days of August. But exactly three months from now, college hoops will be back in full force with the Marathon, which will include more than a dozen games in more than 24 consecutive hours of basketball in what has become a great annual excuse to call into work sick.

At 7 p.m. ET on Nov. 11, the Marathon begins with an ESPN2 women's doubleheader (Stanford-UConn; then Tennessee-North Carolina) and an ESPNU men's doubleheader (Kent State-Temple; then Colorado State-Gonzaga). At 7:30 p.m. ET on Nov. 12, the Marathon ends with a Champions Classic doubleheader that very well might match up four of the nation's top five teams (Kentucky-Michigan State; Kansas-Duke).

In between, starting at 11 p.m. ET on the 11th, there's a run of men's games that will keep the hardcore fans up all night and morning and begging for caffeine by lunchtime. Who will be participating in those games? Well, stick with us here in the Nation blog. We'll be revealing each of the Marathon matchups at the corresponding time they'll be taking place three months from now. Keep this page open and refresh every two hours and you'll get a new game, along with an early analysis of the matchup. Starting with ...

BYU at Stanford, 11 p.m. ET, ESPN2: The Cougars and Cardinal will not only get the Marathon party started late on Nov. 11, they also provide a handy reminder that the earliest parts of the season mean just as much as what happens in February and March. In recent years, the NCAA tournament selection committee has de-emphasized recent results in its selection, instead emphasizing performance in the nonconference as much (or more) than any other single selection criterion. What happens on Nov. 11 matters, in other words, and that's especially true for both BYU and Stanford. The Cougars have quality players in Matt Carlino and Tyler Haws; Stanford is a quality defensive team with solid guard play from Chasson Randle. Neither team looks like a top-25 group, but they do look like they could be in the mix on Selection Sunday. So both will need as many quality nonconference wins as they can get to avoid languishing on the tournament bubble for months at a time. That process will begin immediately.

[+] EnlargeGregg Marshall
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsComing off a Final Four appearance in April, coach Gregg Marshall and the Wichita State Shockers are riding high entering this season.
Western Kentucky at Wichita State, 1 a.m. ET, ESPN2: Just two years ago, Western Kentucky, a proud, historically successful program, appeared to be in deep decline. In January 2012, a 5-10 team lost to six players (true, and long, story), then fired its coach. Since then, Ray Harper has managed to get WKU into the tournament twice, which is as much a testament to his coaching as it is to the wacky power of automatic bids and mid-major conference tournaments. But really, this fixture is about the Wichita State Shockers and their fans, who, in the wake of a surprise Final Four visit, are no doubt eager to showcase the strength of their program and their fan base to a national audience. Charles Koch Arena is always bumping. Imagine what they'll have cooking for a midnight local tip. Oh my.

Akron at Saint Mary’s, 3 a.m. ET, ESPN2: This midnight local tip -- you know, were it not for time zones, this whole Marathon thing would be a lot harder to pull off -- features two of the best mid-major programs of the past decade. You're likely already familiar with Saint Mary's, which has crept up on (and even briefly unseated) Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference in recent years. But Akron coach Keith Dambrot has taken the Zips to the tournament in three of the past five seasons, including as a 12-seed in 2012-13. Recovering from the loss of super-efficient center Zeke Marshall won't be easy (to say nothing of the Alex Abreu ordeal), but Akron has almost everyone else back and is ready to push toward another postseason berth, and then some.

New Mexico State at Hawaii, 5 a.m. ET, ESPN2: There are many, many benefits to being in Hawaii and its time zone is typically not high on that list. But the Warriors' unique geography also makes them a yearly inclusion in the Marathon. At this point, 5 a.m. ET might as well be called the "Hawaii Slot." This year's edition of the Hawaii Slot features one of the more consistently successful and frequently slept-on mid-majors in New Mexico State, where Marvin Menzies has won 50 games over the past two seasons (and has been to back-to-back NCAA tournaments). Expect to hear a lot about Sim Bhullar, who is not your average NMSU player: He's a 7-foot-5 Canadian-born son of Indian parents whose unique background (and sheer size) won him cross-cultural hype from the New York Times before he played a minute of college ball. The good news? Bhullar was good as a freshman, when he shot 62.1 percent from the field and grabbed 12.8 percent of available offensive rebounds. The dude can play, and you can see him do so live -- as long as you can get up early (or stay up that late).

Hartford at Florida Gulf Coast, 7 a.m. ET, ESPN2: There's something immensely fun about the early-morning Marathon entries. The schools involved are typically small enough that the very idea of being included in the event (and on ESPN) is enough to draw a raucous A.M. crowd, especially in the student section. Expect things to go up a notch or two in 2013. The folks at Florida Gulf Coast are riding as high as the sport allows these days. March's "Dunk City"-defined run to the Sweet 16 put the tiny 22-year-old school and its pristine beach dorms in front of every sports fan in the country. Merchandise flew off the shelves; enrollment (almost certainly, given precedent) spiked. It's safe to assume the party will be still be raging come November.

[+] EnlargeTyrone Garland
John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/MCT/Getty ImagesThe Explorers lost only one contributor from a team that won three NCAA tourney games in March.
Quinnipiac at La Salle, 9 a.m. ET, ESPN2: Are you sensing a theme? La Salle, like Florida Gulf Coast and Wichita State above, are likewise coming off one of the best seasons in program history. The 1954 NCAA champs saw the last vestiges of ongoing relevance dry up by the mid-1990s, but their return to the tournament in 2013 -- which required a stopover at the "first round" in Dayton -- took them all the way to the Sweet 16 before they fell to Wichita State. The Explorers lose senior leader Ramon Galloway, but everyone else is back, including a great group of guards led by Tyrone "Southwest Philly Floater" Garland, who is entertaining and frustrating in equally perfect measure.

LSU at Massachusetts, 11 a.m. ET, ESPN2: Typically, LSU fans devote more time to the mechanics of Les Miles' grass-chew habit than they do basketball, and in recent seasons it's been hard to argue with that order of priorities. The Tigers simply have not been very good. That may be changing. Johnny Jones' team returns four starters from a better-than-you-remember 19-12, 2012-13 group. But the biggest piece of news is the arrival of Jarrell Martin, the No. 11-ranked overall player in a stacked incoming recruiting class. The Baton Rouge native took to basketball later than most, but he's already developed into an imposing (if somewhat raw) presence. If his development curve continues to do its best hockey stick impression throughout the rest of the summer, look out for the Tigers. Oh, and don't sleep on UMass -- one of the most stylistically entertaining teams in the country, with a solid returning core -- either. This could be one of those games that looks huge once bubble talk ramps up.

West Virginia at Virginia Tech, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN: Virginia Tech got off to a great start last season, its first under new coach James Johnson. But by the end of the year, about the only thing the Hokies had going for them was senior guard Erick Green, who managed to post a 120.0 offensive rating on 31.7 percent usage, which ranked him behind only Nate Wolters, Kelly Olynyk, Doug McDermott and Trey Burke on the list of players who managed to be efficient despite using so many of their team's possessions. Green was great, but now he's gone, which leaves Johnson facing a classic, long-haul rebuilding scenario. West Virginia isn't quite there, but Bob Huggins' team had a decidedly un-Huggins season in 2012-13, when they played some of the ugliest, most disjointed offense the college game had to offer (which, last season, was saying something). After essentially sending talented, but troubled, forward Aaric Murray away, Huggins will have to cull some semblance of a rotation from a smattering of pieces that never congealed last year. Incoming four-star power forwards Devin Williams and Elijah Mason should help.

South Carolina at Baylor, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN: Despite taking a massive L.J. Peak-induced recruiting gut-punch this summer, Frank Martin's Gamecocks have already made more progress in his one year at the school than in the 10 before it. Martin has a six-player class arriving this fall, led by No. 7-ranked shooting guard Sindarius Thornwell. A few years down the road, the talent level in Columbia is going to be unrecognizably high. Baylor fans could lend some experience on this front. Now entering his 11th season, Scott Drew has taken the Bears from the untouchable site of shocking scandal into one of the most consistently talented programs in the country. This season, the Bears are adding two top-100 talents (Ishmail Wainright, Allerik Freeman) to a group that already includes 7-footer Isaiah Austin and a score of rising youngsters and/or reliable veterans, including forwards Cory Jefferson and Rico Gathers and guards Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin -- the list goes on and on. After an NIT title in March, Baylor should be after much more this season.

[+] EnlargeMick Cronin
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesSean Kilpatrick and Mick Cronin are looking to for a fourth straight NCAA tournament bid.
NC State at Cincinnati, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN: When everything was clicking, there were few sights in the college game as thrilling as NC State's offense last season -- Lorenzo Brown leading the break, T.J. Warren running to the block, Scott Wood spotting up on the wing. The problem, of course, was defense, or more precisely a lack of defense. Some of that had to do with personnel, but much of it was related to attitude. With Wood, Brown, guard Rodney Purvis (transfer to UConn) and forwards C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell all gone, coach Mark Gottfried won't have as much tantalizing talent on the court this time around. But he will have a pared-down group that actually wants to be in Raleigh, and he can build the additions of top-100 recruits Anthony Barber, BeeJay Anya and Kyle Washington around Warren, the Pack's most dynamic and promising player a season ago. A trip to Cincinnati will be a crucial early test of Gottfried's mini-rebuild, as a Sean Kilpatrick-led Bearcats group hopes the addition of power forward Jermaine Lawrence will push the program past the "solid NCAA tournament inclusion" hump into ever more rarefied air.

"College GameDay" from Chicago, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: I don't need to preview College Gameday for you, do I? You already know how awesome College Gameday is. Let's move on.

VCU at Virginia, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: It's almost unfair to pit the ESPN2 primetime games against the Champions Classic. They're bound to look pale by comparison. But on any other night of the season, VCU-Virginia (and its 9 p.m. ET follow-up, about which more below) would be must-see stuff. The basketball is good in and of itself. Under Shaka Smart, Virginia Commonwealth has morphed 2011's shock Final Four run into a burgeoning outfit that plays one of the most recognizable systems -- a constantly turnover-hawking pressing style -- in the country. UVa, meanwhile, has steadily improved under fifth-year coach Tony Bennett, who has adopted many of the pack-line defensive principles that his father Dick Bennett developed long ago at Wisconsin-Green Bay. The contrast of speed and style couldn't be more pronounced here, and if a hearty quasi-cultural, in-state rivalry doesn't exist between these two very different schools already, it shouldn't take long.

Michigan State vs. Kentucky in Chicago, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: And so we arrive at the jewel of the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon: The Champions Classic. In its first two years, the Champions Classic has done exactly what it set out to do -- provide mutually beneficial marquee college hoops scheduling at the start of the season -- and then some. It even offered an early national title preview (Kentucky vs. Kansas) in 2011-12.

This year's edition might be the best yet, and that starts with Michigan State-Kentucky. The Spartans are the prohibitive Big Ten favorite (or co-favorite with Michigan, your mileage may vary), and bring back about as solid and imposing a core -- senior guard Keith Appling, still-improving senior forward Adreian Payne, Big Ten freshman of the year Gary Harris -- and will begin the season in the top 5 because of it.

After the 2012 national title, Kentucky coach John Calipari probably didn't expect to be on the losing side of a first-round NIT game a year later (and in his hometown, no less), but even as Robert Morris fans stormed the court in March, Calipari could take solace knowing he assembled what is by all accounts the best recruiting class since the Fab Five, and maybe ever. With Julius Randle, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Dakari Johnson, James Young and Marcus Lee, Calipari landed five of the top nine players in the class and six of the top 25. Oh, and he'll have Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein -- clearly talented players who struggled as freshmen, but should be more effective with more experience and more minimized roles -- back, too. The whole prospect is terrifying: For as good as UK was in 2011-12, this team might be better. What better early test than a veteran, Tom Izzo-coached Michigan State?

Florida at Wisconsin, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2: See? This is another really good college basketball game that most people probably won't watch live, because you're not going to miss the beginning of what I have already imagined will be a Bird-Magic-esque Wiggins-Parker rivalry in Duke-Kansas. But the doubleheader on ESPN2 isn't too far behind. No coach in the country is as consistent as Bo Ryan, and this year very little should change. The only exception is the star power offered by sophomore forward Sam Dekker, a rare top-20 recruit for the Badgers who shined in an introductory role as a freshman, and will be asked to do loads more as a sophomore. Speaking of consistency, Florida has participated in the last three Elite Eights, and the Gators appear to be as capable of that feat as ever in 2013-14. No. 2-ranked freshman point guard Kasey Hill should start and star immediately alongside forward Patric Young, and if the Gators can get equally touted freshman power forward Chris Walker academically eligible, they'll have plenty of firepower to bring to the Kohl Center.

Kansas vs. Duke, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN: Yes, UK-MSU is awfully good, and the teams are probably better overall. But for sheer intrigue, it's hard to top Duke versus Kansas. On one side is the No. 1 player in the class, Andrew Wiggins, who is not merely your average top-ranked recruit but considered by pretty much every scout you talk to as the best prospect since Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, if not LeBron James. Which is funny, considering that's the same thing Sports Illustrated once plastered on its cover next to a photo of four-time Illinois state champion, No. 2-ranked Jabari Parker. There is already a bit of a LeBron James-Carmelo Anthony thing going on here. Wiggins is the world-destroying athletic freak with the intuitive all-court game; Parker is the smooth, natural scorer. In 2003, Anthony and James entered their rookie seasons having only ever met on the AAU circuit. In 2013, Parker and Wiggins will meet each other on one of the first nights of the season, following Kentucky's Julius Randle, who is good enough to steal the eventual No. 1 overall pick out from under both.

In other words, the three reasons why you'll hear so much about NBA teams tanking in the next 12 months are all playing on the same United Center night in mid-November, and two of them are playing each other. Man, the Champions Classic is awesome. Did I mention that already? We covered that part, right?

So get your remote control handy; get your DVR game tight. That's good advice for the primetime doubleheader, but it works for the whole Marathon, too. By the time it's over, you won't even remember the offseason existed. I can't wait.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Bill Self could sense something was wrong.

Less than an hour before his team played Western Kentucky on Friday, the energy and spirit that’s so often present in the Jayhawks’ locker room was missing. Smiles were few and far between. During pregame shootaround, the Jayhawks lacked their normal bounce.

“There was a little bit of a different feel,” Self said. “I actually noticed it. We were tight.”

And Western Kentucky wasn’t.

All of it nearly resulted in a history-making night at the Sprint Center, with Western Kentucky just a few shots away from becoming the first No. 16 seed to upset a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Kansas -- which trailed by one point at intermission and only led by four points with 30 seconds left -- eventually escaped with a 64-57 victory. But Self and his players know that Friday’s win will be their last of the season if they don’t refocus before Sunday's round of 32 game against No. 8 seed North Carolina.

The Tar Heels, led by former Kansas coach Roy Williams, defeated No. 9 seed Villanova 78-71 in an earlier game.

“I think personally it’s part of human nature to not be as prepared for a smaller team,” Kansas point guard Elijah Johnson said. “But in a North Carolina-Kansas game, I think everyone comes ready to play.

“There’s going to be so much juice in the building. Roy is coming back. There’s going to be a lot of fans pumped up. We’ll be pumped up. We got that first one out of the way. We’re a little looser now. I think it will be a different attitude in the locker room before the game.”

The Jayhawks had better hope things are different during the game, too.

[+] EnlargeJeff Withey
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsCenter Jeff Withey came up huge for top-seeded Kansas with 17 points, 7 blocks and 6 rebounds.
Kansas shot just 7.7 percent outside the paint Friday, becoming the first team since 2001 to win an NCAA tournament game without making a 3-pointer. The Jayhawks committed 17 turnovers and were outrebounded 41-35 overall and 18-4 on the offensive glass.

Western Kentucky outscored Kansas 17-5 on second-chance points. Hilltoppers coach Ray Harper said he couldn’t have been more proud of his players.

“The entire country got a glimpse of what they’re made of, their character and heart,” Harper said.

It would be foolish to say this game was close simply because Kansas played poorly or was ill-prepared, although those things certainly contributed.

The bigger story, though, was the moxie and grit displayed by the Hilltoppers, who hardly resembled a typical happy-to-be-there No. 16 seed, awed and overwhelmed by the hoopla surrounding March Madness.

Western Kentucky -- which was making its second consecutive tournament appearance and played in the Sweet 16 in 2008 -- entered the tournament with a 20-15 record overall and a 10-10 mark in the Sun Belt Conference. It would’ve had no chance of making the NCAA tournament if it hadn’t received an automatic bid by winning its league tournament nearly two weeks ago.

The Hilltoppers are ranked No. 150 in the RPI, which makes them far from the worst team KU has played this season. TCU, for example, is No. 238.

Harper’s players were the aggressors for most of Friday’s game. WKU probably could have won had it not shot 20.5 percent after intermission. Some of that was because of KU’s defense, but the Hilltoppers also missed some wide-open shots.

“We also made one shot for the game outside of two feet -- one,” Self said. “And that was by our 7-footer (Jeff Withey). So we didn’t exactly light it up, either.”

Kansas trailed 31-30 at halftime before battling back in the final stanza. A pivotal moment occurred when Jayhawks forward Kevin Young missed a 16-foot jumper with just under 18 minutes remaining. Young grabbed his own rebound near the free throw line and drove in for a two-handed reverse slam that ignited a nervous crowd of more than 18,000 mainly Kansas fans.

The Sprint Center was deafening the rest of the way, which was important on a night like Friday, when KU (30-5) needed all the help it could get.

“Sometimes playing at home, I think, puts more pressure on you in certain ways,” Self said. “We didn’t respond very well to the advantages we had.”

One Jayhawk who definitely came ready to play Friday was Withey, who finished with 17 points, 7 blocks and 6 rebounds. Withey scored five points during an 8-1 Kansas run that extended a 45-41 lead to 53-42 with just under three minutes remaining. Five of Withey’s blocks came in the second half.

Western Kentucky kept fighting and pulled within four points on a Brandon Harris 3-pointer that made is 59-55 with 28 ticks remaining. Kansas, though, made five straight free throws to seal the victory.

“We didn’t play our best by any stretch,” Self said. “But give Western credit. I thought they were the most aggressive team. I thought they controlled the game for the most part until the second half, when we got the ball inside some.

“We’re happy to advance, but certainly not pleased with how we played. Certainly we know we’ll have to play a lot better on Sunday.”
1. Duke athletic director Kevin White said Monday the ACC will likely continue to keep the tournament in Greensboro, N.C. But White said the ACC should look to New York -- Madison Square Garden or Brooklyn -- at some point in a rotation of tournament sites. White said a decision should be reached in the next three to four months as to whether the ACC would pursue a New York turn in the rotation. The ACC is in Greensboro through 2015. Greensboro, Charlotte, Tampa, Washington D.C. and Atlanta all submitted bids for hosting the ACC tournament between 2016-21. But that doesn’t mean New York can’t be back in play. White said the ACC has to consider the new and old assets in the league. Regardless, he said the (eventual 15-team) ACC tournament will be the best basketball in the country.

2. The Pac-12 is hoping that moving the conference tournament to Las Vegas’ MGM Grand will ensure a packed atmosphere instead of the fickle situation at Staples Center in the past. The Pac-12 has no excuses if it doesn’t happen at the MGM. The WCC has been able to sell out and rock the Orleans Arena and they're locked into the site for the next three years. If the WCC can produce a tremendous crowd -- even with fan bases dwarfed by the Pac-12 -- then surely the Pac-12 should be able to come through with a more than respectable showing later this week in Las Vegas.

3. Tim Cluess’ success at Iona should send a strong message to athletic directors across the country. Fit is always better than just name recognition. Cluess has now taken the Gaels to two-straight NCAA tournaments -- one as an at-large and another as an automatic qualifier. Cluess was plucked from relatively unknown C.W. Post before landing at Iona. Ray Harper must also get his due for what he has done at Western Kentucky. I was critical of firing Ken McDonald in January of 2012, more so for doing it at that time of the year. But Harper has been the answer, leading the Hilltoppers to the NCAA tournament now in two-straight seasons; winning the Sun Belt in consecutive years.
With the possible exception of Ohio State's just-too-close-for-comfort grind over Winthrop and Wake Forest's win over Furman (sorry), Tuesday night's college hoops results went mostly according to plan. Arizona and Kansas cruised at home, Michigan State toughed out a win at Bowling Green, NC State got a good challenge from Stanford but managed to pull away and get a win at home, and so on. As expected, it was a relatively standard night of college basketball. There were no Alex Barlows to be uncovered here.

Virginia Commonwealth's victory over Western Kentucky fit this theme. The Hilltoppers came in 8-3 and miles better than they were last season, but they're still nowhere near VCU's level, and the Rams handled business at home. No big deal.

Except that VCU's win produced a handful of eye-popping statistics. To wit:
  • VCU forced Western Kentucky into 32 turnovers.
  • The Hilltoppers turned the ball over on 45.7 percent of their possessions.
  • VCU attempted 66 shots. WKU attempted 42. Typically, when you are take 24 fewer shots than your opponent, your chances of winning tend to decrease. That's just, like, science, man.
  • Western Kentucky averaged .62 points per possession. Yow.

Those are pretty awesome, but these last three -- which were passed along last night by VCU spokesman Scott Day -- are probably my favorites:
  • Darius Theus played a grand total of 17 minutes and 8 seconds the win. While Theus was on the court, WKU scored a total of four points. Yes, you read that correctly. Four points.
  • Theus played 33 defensive possessions Tuesday night. Twenty-one of those ended in a WKU turnover.
  • A team has posted 20-plus steals against a Division I opponent just eight times in the past two seasons. VCU perpetrated three of those games (against UNC-Wilmington last season and Florida Gulf Coast and Western Kentucky this fall).

So, yeah. Tough night for Western Kentucky. The good news for the Hilltoppers is T.J. Price and Jamal Crook -- the team's two starting guards and leading scorers -- both missed the game. So it's not like Western Kentucky is that bad.

Mostly, VCU is that good. The Rams won't always make their opponents look like a junior-varsity team trying to bring the ball up the floor; really, you have to feel for those WKU backups, facing the lockdown turnover machine that is Darius Theus. But VCU will pretty much always make you cough it up. Tuesday night was just a dramatic reminder.

Numbers To Know: Thursday recap

November, 30, 2012
Player of the Night – Jack Cooley
Cooley notched his third straight double-double in the Notre Dame Fighting Irish’s 64-50 win over the Kentucky Wildcats. The Irish improved to 4-31 against ranked Kentucky squads.

Going up against one of the five tallest teams in the country, Cooley led all players with 11 rebounds. That includes six offensive boards, which led to eight second-chance points.

Freshman of the Night – Michael Frazier II
Frazier broke out in the Florida Gators' 82-49 drubbing of the Marquette Golden Eagles. The freshman scored 12 of his career-high 17 points in the first half. He came into the game averaging just 3.4 points per game.

It was the most points for a Florida freshman off the bench since Erving Walker in 2009.

Scorer of the Night – T.J. Price
Price was the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers' only player in double figures in a 65-54 road win over the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks. The sophomore finished with a career-high 30 points, as the rest of the starting lineup combined for only 16. Price accounted for 11 of his team’s first 13 points.

Ugly Stat Line Part I – Seton Hall
The Seton Hall Pirates committed 26 turnovers in a 72-67 loss to the LSU Tigers. That’s the most turnovers in a game for the Pirates since 2001, and the most LSU has forced since 2003.

Ugliest of all is when the bulk of those turnovers occurred. Seton Hall led 48-34 before committing 17 turnovers in the final 16 minutes of the game. That includes one stretch of four turnovers in a minute.

Ugly Stat Line Part II – Marquette
Marquette never led in its 82-49 loss to Florida. The Golden Eagles were held below 50 points for the first time since 2007. It was Marquette’s worst non-conference loss since a 33-point blowout by the Kansas Jayhawks in 2003.'s Sun Belt preview

October, 27, 2012

Before getting to the Blue Ribbon team-by-team previews for the Sun Belt, read Dana O'Neil's profile of new Florida International coach Richard Pitino, Myron Medcalf's look at North Texas' nonconference schedule and Western Kentucky's place in's 50 in 50 series.

Blue Ribbon's in-depth previews of all 11 Sun Belt teams: Insider

Arkansas-Little Rock

Arkansas State

Florida Atlantic Insider Free

Florida International



Middle Tennessee

North Texas

South Alabama


Western Kentucky

50 in 50 rankings: No. 30 Western Kentucky

August, 22, 2012
Editor's note: Using a point system devised by the ESPN Stats & Information department, is counting down the 50 most successful programs of the past 50 years. A running list of the top 50 can be found here. For an explanation of the scoring system, read our intro.

30. Western Kentucky (236 points)

Positives: Made 1971 Final Four; also made Sweet 16 four other times; 18 regular-season conference titles and 16 conference tournament titles; two first-team consensus All-Americans.

Negatives: Lost 15 points due to sanctions and vacated wins; advanced past Sweet 16 just once in school history; only four winning seasons from 1983-92.

Fun fact: Western Kentucky had two top-10 picks (Clem Haskins, Clarence Glover) in a five-year span from 1967-71.

Rank by the decade
1962-69: 29 (38th)
1970-79: 58 (T-24th)
1980-89: 40 (T-62nd)
1990-99: 27 (T-73rd)
2000-present: 82 (28th)

50 in 50 starting five (1962-present)
G – Brett McNeal (1985-89)
G – Courtney Lee (2004-08)
F – Clem Haskins (1964-67)
F – Kannard Johnson (1983-87)
C – Jim McDaniels (1968-71)


Which is Western Kentucky's best team of the past 50 years?


Discuss (Total votes: 3,197)

Top options off the bench
Tellis Frank (1983-87)
Johnny Britt (1972-76)
Chris Marcus (1999-2003)

50 in 50 coach: E.A. Diddle (1923-64)

Best teams (1962-present)
1970-71 (24-6, NCAA national semifinals)
1992-93 (26-6, NCAA Sweet 16)
1994-95 (27-4, NCAA second round)

--Harold Shelton and Brett Edgerton contributed to this post.
This week, Vincennes University, a two-year junior college on the southwest Indiana side of the Illinois-Indiana border, announced a (relatively) momentous bit of transfer news: Michael Bradley, formerly of the Connecticut Huskies, would be joining the Vincennes basketball team for the 2012-13 season.

Bradley left UConn, where he famously gave up his scholarship to make room for highly touted 2011 recruit Andre Drummond, this summer in an attempt to play at Western Kentucky. But when the NCAA denied his appeal to play immediately -- a slightly strange decision, given Bradley's injuries and background -- the 6-foot-10 forward needed to find a place to play right away. That place just so happened to be a small Indiana junior college. Simple enough.

[+] EnlargeMichael Bradley
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyMichael Bradley will spend the 2012-13 season playing for Vincennes.
What was less simple was what all this meant for Bradley's eligibility. My editor emailed me with exactly that question, and we spent some time going through the NCAA transfer rules, but NCAA bylaws have a way of somehow being both dense and vague. Far as we could tell, the rules made it seem that Bradley would be OK to transfer back to a Division I school after one year at Vincennes, provided he carried over his coursework and completed the necessary added requirements for graduation from the two-year school in the coming year.

That's correct in a general sense. But, as we expected, Bradley's eligibility status is slightly more complicated. Bylaw Blog's John Infante took it upon himself to answer our question at, but not before laying out the distinctions between transfer types and the category Bradley currently belonged to. Warning, long blockquote ahoy:
The NCAA has three basic types of transfers and four basic sets of transfer rules. 4–4 transfers are transfers from a four-year college to another four-year college. 2–4 transfers are transfers from a two-year college (i.e. a junior or community college) to a four-year college. And 4–2–4 transfers are transfers from a four-year college to a two-year college then to another four-year college. [...]

When a student-athlete becomes a 4–2–4 transfer, he needs to meet the requirements of Bylaw 14.5.6 to play immediately when he ends up back at a Division I school:

1. Complete an average of 12 credit-hours per term of full-time enrollment at the two-year school;
2. Have one year elapse from the time the student-athlete left the first four-year school; and
3. Graduate from the junior college with an associates degree.

All of this should be relatively straightforward for Bradley. His unfulfilled residency requirement at WKU would also not stand in his way because 4–2–4 transfers are not affected by an unfilled residency requirement (only 4–4 transfers are). There is one potential speed bump though. [...]

When Bradley returns to Division I next year, he will have finished three years or six semesters of college. That means he will need to have completed 60% of his degree according to Bylaw Normally that’s not an issue, but it can be when an athlete transfers to a junior college after his second year.

Essentially, Infante writes, Bradley will have to choose his courses carefully at Vincennes to ensure that he has the 60 percent degree requirement fulfilled by the time he finishes what could be his lone year at the school. Bradley's situation seems all out of whack, but provided he gets the courses he needs from Vincennes, he should graduate with an associates degree from the two-year school and should be able to transfer back to a Division I school to play next season.

In shorter terms: Yes, Bradley can play Division I basketball again, probably even next season. And that's the answer to that question. Thanks, John.
Michael Bradley, the former Connecticut forward who famously gave up his scholarship to make room for star recruit Andre Drummond (and caused a minor ruckus in doing so, thanks to Connecticut's NCAA-imposed scholarship reductions), has finally found a place to play his basketball in 2012-13: Vincennes University, a two-year junior college in Indiana.

The school announced Bradley's addition in a release this weekend. The 6-foot-10 forward initially hoped to transfer to Western Kentucky and was enrolled in summer classes at the school, but was unable to secure immediate eligibility despite an NCAA appeal. Bradley would have had to sit out a third straight year -- an ankle injury cost him his 2011-12 season -- before competing for the Hilltoppers.

Instead, Bradley will take his talents to Vincennes, and Trailblazers coach Todd Franklin can barely hide his excitement:
“He’s a big, talented guy, and he has a vast amount of potential,” Franklin said in the release. “We hope he can get us over the hump (to be a serious contender for a NJCAA Div. I National Championship at Hutchinson, KS).” [...] When you can add a 6-10 Big East (Conference) transfer who doesn’t bring a lot of baggage and was a high test score player, you have to feel fortunate.”

Bradley was a high-Division I recruit who considered Georgia and Memphis as well as Connecticut during his initial recruiting run. The thought of him playing for the Hilltoppers in the Sun Belt conference -- where elite big men are rare commodities -- was intriguing enough. At Vincennes, assuming he can shake off the cobwebs caused by two years of game-inaction, Bradley could dominate -- all the while preparing for a move back to Division-I hoops down the line.

When that move could come will be interesting to watch. The NCAA typically requires athletes at two-year institutions to graduate before they can become immediately eligible to transfer. But if Bradley has enough preexisting credits to graduate from Vincennes within one year, could he theoretically be ready to move after just one season? Chances are this won't matter, as Bradley may never be a high-impact player at the highest levels of the sport. But he still has time to get there.

We'll have to wait and see what Bradley, and then the NCAA, decide. In the meantime, fans of the Vincennes Trailblazers -- and yes, they're out there -- have an unexpected hoops treat on their hands.
In mid-April, we learned of potentially dire, downright unthinkable news: The Ivy League was considering -- gasp -- a season-ending conference tournament. No, Ivy League, no! Say it isn't so!

It isn't so. Today, the Ivy League announced via a release that its "directors of athletics have decided not to move forward with proposals for postseason tournaments in men's and women's basketball."

"After careful consideration of these proposals, the athletics directors decided that our current method of determining the Ivy League Champion and our automatic bid recipient to the NCAA Championship is the best model moving forward," said Robin Harris, Ivy League Executive Director.

I agree, for two reasons:

1. If nothing else, the Ivy League -- from a cultural/educational standpoint, but also a sporting one -- is about tradition. Tradition is what makes its schools so unique, and it's what makes the league itself, marginal mid-major though it often is, stand out. The 14-game round-robin schedule and the lack of a conference tournament is one of these things. Keep it.

2. I actually believe this is how every conference -- or at least every non-BCS conference -- should handle its conference tournament. Sure, I love über-underdog runs like 2012 Western Kentucky's as much as the next fan. But not as much as I hate seeing worthy tournament teams, who dominated their leagues all season but can't schedule nonconference opponents commensurate to receiving an at-large bid, being left by the wayside. Middle Tennessee State went 27-7 overall in 2012, and 14-2 in the Sun Belt regular season. But a three-point upset in the first round of the Sun Belt conference tournament relegated the Blue Raiders to the NIT (where, it might or might not be worth noting, they beat Marshall and Tennessee before falling to Minnesota).

Conference tournaments are exciting, no question. Everybody gathers with one automatic bid on the line, and all your favorite team needs to make its last-ditch tournament dreams a reality is three or four days of hot shooting and energetic play. It can be thrilling. It can also be massively unfair. Settling that bid over the course of a season, with an entire round-robin schedule of games, is a far more sporting (now there's an Ivy League term) way to go about your AQ business.

Of course, this is just sort of the way college basketball works. It's the beauty of the NCAA tournament in a nutshell, this small-sample-size randomness. I wouldn't expect large-scale adoption of the Ivy League's model anytime soon. But it is good to see at least one league, the good old Ivy, place so much value -- the right amount of value -- on its regular season. The rest of the sport could take a note.

Video: Kyle Wiltjer on Kentucky's win

March, 15, 2012

Kentucky's Kyle Wiltjer talks about his team's 81-66 win over Western Kentucky in the NCAA tournament.

Video: Breaking down Kentucky's win

March, 15, 2012

Jimmy Dykes analyzes top-seeded Kentucky's 81-66 victory over Western Kentucky.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Here's a quick look at No. 1 seed Kentucky's 81-66 victory over No. 16 seed Western Kentucky in the South Region on Thursday night:

Overview: Nothing to see here, folks.

Well, nothing except lob dunks and a whole lot of blue. Kentucky avoided any kind of Syracuse-like scare in its opening game of the tournament, thoroughly and methodically squeezing the life out of its in-state neighbor. Western Kentucky made things interesting for a short time in the first half and rallied to make the final score respectable, but the Hilltoppers simply had no answers for the Wildcats' size and talent. Few have.

The setting provided a virtual home game for Kentucky, as Big Blue Nation dominated the stands at the KFC Yum! Center. Not that the tournament's top overall seed needed much more of an advantage over a team that came into the game with a losing record on the season.

The Wildcats led by as many as 32 points in the second half before boredom became their toughest opponent down the stretch. More difficult times likely await, but opening night went as expected.

Turning point: This one was never really in doubt, but an 11-1 run to close the first half gave Kentucky a 45-26 lead at intermission and pretty much guaranteed the second half would be academic.

Key player: Terrence Jones is one of only two Kentucky starters with any NCAA tournament experience, and he looked like a guy who's ready to use a big March as a springboard toward the next level. Jones can seem too passive at times, but he took the initiative all night and powered home three crowd-pleasing dunks, including a one-handed putback slam you'll be seeing on "SportsCenter." Jones finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds for his fourth double-double of the season.

Key stat: Kentucky shot 61.5 percent in the first half and 55.6 percent overall. The Wildcats had 46 points in the paint to 20 for Western Kentucky.

Miscellany: Kentucky coach John Calipari did not play anyone other than the top seven guys in his rotation until the final 22 seconds. He couldn't have been happy with how his team lost focus and gave up a bunch of easy buckets in the final minutes. .... The Wildcats just missed putting all five starters in double figures as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who had an awful game in the SEC tournament loss to Vanderbilt, finished with nine points. ... Anthony Davis threw down consecutive alley-oops in the second half, but he was called for a technical foul on the second one for hanging on the rim too long. He had 16 points, nine rebounds and seven blocked shots ... Davis becomes the fifth player in the past five NCAA tournaments to have seven blocks in a game. ... Spotted in the evening crowd: Miami Heat president Pat Riley, who played at Kentucky. Riley sat in the Iowa State cheering section, however. ... T.J. Price led Western Kentucky with 21 points before fouling out with 3 minutes, 19 seconds to go.

What's next: Kentucky will play Iowa State on Saturday in the third round — missing out on a rematch with UConn, which knocked the Wildcats out in the Final Four last season.
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.
1. The selection committee said BYU and Iona were 14 seeds because of the need to have the Cougars play into a Thursday-Saturday regional if they won. But they also wanted to make sure the Cougars weren’t near a WCC team or out West (too far to travel from Dayton). So that limited the Cougs and dumped them in nearby Louisville. But it also means that Marquette is getting one of the best 14 seeds that a No. 3 seed has seen with the Cougars coming back to beat Iona.

2. Western Kentucky fans have been hammering me on twitter about my criticism of firing Ken McDonald mid-season. I’m not against McDonald being canned. I understand that the situation had gotten out of control. And, yes, Ray Harper did a tremendous job to get Western Kentucky through the Sun Belt tournament title and then to come back against Mississippi Valley State. But unless there are extenuating circumstances, I still don’t like college coaches being fired prior to the end of the season. Let’s also remember, this isn’t the pros. It is extremely disruptive mid-year.

3. One of my pet peeves occurred multiple times during our 68 coaches show Tuesday in Charlotte. It’s not the best 68 teams. It’s the top 37. The selection committee isn’t putting together the best 68 teams. If you were confused then all you had to do was watch the first First Four Tuesday night.