Down the Wire: One loss doesn’t dash conference title hopes

WKU redshirt junior Lamonte Bearden (1) shoots while Karl Gamble (25) attempts to block his shot during WKU’s game vs MTSU on Saturday, January 20. 2018. WKU lost to MTSU 62-66.

Despite WKU’s 66-62 loss to Middle Tennessee in Diddle Saturday, the Hilltoppers have proven that they’re one of a few teams with a legitimate shot at taking the Conference USA crown this season, and they still sit in a three-way tie for first in the league.

Prior to the MTSU loss, WKU won its first six conference games by an average of 11.2 points, including a seven-point win over Old Dominion, which sits atop the conference alongside WKU and MTSU, and a 25-point win over fourth place Marshall, the Thundering Herd’s first (and currently only) loss at home this year.

The 6-0 start certainly put WKU in the conversation for the conference championship, which is pretty impressive by itself considering WKU was predicted to finish sixth in the C-USA preseason poll. And it’s not often that a team loses to MTSU and is still right at the top of the conference. The Blue Raiders have won back-to-back conference tournaments, and they won the conference outright in the regular season last year.

“Until somebody beats Middle they’re the best team in the league, that’s why they’re picked first,” WKU head coach Rick Stansbury said after the loss to MTSU. “Like I told my team, it counts as one win, one loss. We had a chance to separate ourselves [Saturday] a little bit, and we didn’t take advantage of that. Middle got that loss back they had at Marshall by coming here and winning.”

But if WKU wants to go beyond the conference tournament and into the NCAA Tournament this year, odds are they will have to win the conference. Despite the 6-1 conference start, the Hilltoppers still have losses to Missouri State (at home), Ohio and a Wisconsin team that’s having a down year. In a mid-major conference, WKU likely won’t be able to get an at-large bid with losses like that.

If they are going to make the tournament on an at-large bid, their stellar regular season conference play will have to continue. Multiple in-conference losses, especially to any team that’s not MTSU, would really hurt the Hilltoppers’ resume. Running the table in conference play would give WKU the regular season championship, and at least keep them in the conversation for an at-large bid if they don’t win the conference tournament.

The Hilltoppers have certainly grabbed the attention of those with a pulse on mid-major basketball across the country. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and Jay Bilas have each listed WKU as a capable tournament team (Lunardi even named WKU as his mid-major Cinderella on Twitter), as has CBS’s Jerry Palm. And Mid-Major Madness has listed the Hilltoppers as the No. 8 mid-major team in the nation.

The national media has taken notice of WKU’s huge win in the Bahamas back in November. The Hilltoppers upset No. 18 Purdue, who has jumped to No. 3 since then. The Boilermakers haven’t lost since playing WKU and are regarded as one of the favorites to win the National Championship at this point.

WKU will have several chances to prepare for the biggest games of the regular season and the conference tournament. After the Hilltoppers take on Marshall in Diddle Arena Saturday, they’ll have seven straight games against teams with losing records in C-USA play. After that, they’ll play ODU, MTSU and Alabama-Birmingham  all top-five teams in the conference — to close the season. The final week and a half will likely decide the regular season champion.

“This thing is going to go right down to the last weekend,” MTSU head coach Kermit Davis said. “It’s going to be an unbelievable Conference USA race.”

Sports Editor Jeremy Chisenhall can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @JSChisenhall.