Saturday, March 14, 2015

Farewell to the Hilltoppers

In March 1981, my parents heard my pleas and we got ESPN for my 15th birthday.  It was amazing.  The best part, of course, was getting to see the early rounds of the NCAA Basketball Tournament.  But I still remember how annoyed I was to tune in to the first-round game between Western Kentucky and Alabama-Birmingham, only to see the Blazers roll to an easy 93-68 win over the Hilltoppers.  A few days later, UAB beat Kentucky 69-62 -- the first time I had seen UK go out before the Sweet 16.  UAB has been a thorn in my side ever since.

So I didn't have great feelings when I saw that Western Kentucky was scheduled to play UAB in the quarter-finals of the C-USA Tournament -- and that the game would be in Birmingham.  It seemed like a pretty bad break, given that Western and UAB had finished with the same record in the Conference:

77.  Louisiana Tech:  15-3
65.  Old Dominion:  13-5
95.  UTEP:  13-5
127.  UAB:  12-6
139.  W. Kentucky:  12-6
134.  Mid. Tenn. St:  9-9
205.  Rice:  8-10
206.  Tex-San Antonio:  8-10
242.  N. Texas:  8-10
268.  Fla. Int'l:  8-10
153.  Charlotte:  7-11
265.  Marshall:  7-11
313.  So. Mississippi:  4-14
296.  Fla. Atlantic:  2-16

But for a long time on Thursday night, I thought Western might pull the upset and make another late-season run through a conference tournament.  With 1:15 left in the game, the Hilltoppers were up 52-48, and Ken Pomeroy gave UAB only an 11.2 percent chance of victory.  But that chance came in, as the Blazers scored the last five points of the game to win a grim, ugly game:  53-52.

So ends Western's fourth season under Coach Ray Harper.  Here's what he's done so far:

2012:  189 in K-Pom.  16-19 overall, 7-9 in conference.  Won the Sun Belt Tournament.
2013:  183.  20-16 overall, 10-10 in conference.  Won the Sun Belt Tournament
2014:  181.  20-12 overall.  12-6 in conference.  Lost 73-72 in Sun Belt Quarters.
2015:  139.  20-12 overall.  12-6 in conference.  Lost 53-52 in C-USA Quarters.

Looking only at the won-loss record, Western may appear to be standing still.  But the C-USA is tougher than the Sun Belt, and K-Pom's rankings show that this was Western's best team since 2010.

My own view is that Harper is a very good game coach -- you do not want to face him in tournament play, and I'm confident he would have found a way to get Murray, for example, through the OVC Tournament this year.  The big question is whether he can take advantage of the new conference affiliation to upgrade the talent level in Bowling Green.  If he can, I am confident Western can do great things in the C-USA.  My only request is that they drop the gray numerals they were wearing in the C-USA Tournament, and return to the traditional red and white.  They looked too much like Reidland against UAB.

Western Kentucky finishes the year with a record of 20-12 overall, and 12-6 in Conference USA.  They were eliminated by one point in the quarter-finals of the C-USA Tournament.  There are now only three Kentucky teams with a chance at the NCAA Title:  Kentucky, Louisville, and Murray -- although Murray needs a favorable decision from the Selection Committee.

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