Heading into the final two-game slate of the 2017-18 season, the WKU men’s basketball team stood in prime position to claim the number one seed in the Conference USA tournament.
The Hilltoppers needed to defeat Middle Tennessee State University and University of Alabama-Birmingham. They also needed Marshall University to defeat MTSU to claim the outright regular season C-USA Championship. Marshall took care of business by upsetting MTSU in the two teams’ final game. However, WKU did not take care of business, losing by a combined 46 points in the final two games to conclude the season with a 22-9 (14-4 C-USA) record.
“If someone told me before the year that we’d be 14-4 in conference, we would’ve taken that any day of the week,” senior forward Justin Johnson said. “What’s frustrating is we know we’re better than 14-4. The last two outings have been disappointing. Those guys in the locker room have a chip on their shoulder. If we don’t show up for the next one, the season’s over.”
Had they taken care of business, the Hilltoppers would’ve been crowned outright C-USA regular season champions, earned the No. 1 seed in the C-USA tournament and made a strong case as an at-large team in the NCAA Tournament. Instead, it’s now time to win or go home. The Hilltoppers will need to win three games in three days to achieve their goal of being crowned C-USA champs and play in the NCAA Tournament.
MTSU, Old Dominion University, WKU and Marshall (in that order) earned the top four seeds and will receive a first round bye. WKU will play the winner of UAB/Florida Atlantic University in the second round. The Hilltoppers defeated FAU 75-63 and UAB 77-69 in Diddle Arena earlier this season. But UAB blew out the Hilltoppers 101-73 in the final game of the season.
The Blazers were picked to finish second in C-USA behind MTSU in the preseason, but they lost three games over a month’s span to set them back in the C-USA standings. UAB finished the season with wins over Marshall and WKU, defeating both by an average of 21 points each. WKU finished with two losses by an average of 23 points. If UAB avoids an early upset to FAU, the Hilltoppers will have a chance to avenge their 28-point beatdown suffered at the hands of the Blazers.
“There’s no magical dust or pills. It’s about taking a deep look in that mirror and deciding how much longer you want to play,” head coach Rick Stansbury said. “Because every game is your last one from now on. There’s no magic to it, no panicking to it, no throwing anybody under the bus.”
With a win over UAB, WKU will likely play No. 2 ODU in the conference semifinal. The Hilltoppers swept the Monarchs in the regular season, including a 22-point victory in the home finale.
MTSU, the No. 1 seed, will play the winner of Florida International University and University of Southern Mississippi, who they defeated in the regular season. With a win in that game, the Blue Raiders will likely play Marshall in the conference semifinal. MTSU finished 16-2 in C-USA play and both losses came to the hands of Marshall.
The first round of the C-USA tournament begins on Wednesday. WKU will play in round two on Thursday at 9 p.m. That game will be streamed on Facebook. The last two rounds will be aired on the CBS Sports Network. All games will take place in the Ford Center in Frisco, Texas.
Reporter Sam Porter can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @SammyP14.