WKU’s postseason hopes hang in a familiar balance

WKU forward Justin Johnson (23) and Middle Tennessee guard Tyrik Dickson (0) jump for a rebound during the Topper’s 78-52 loss to Middle Tennessee State University on Thursday Feb. 16, 2017 in Diddle Arena.

Matthew Stewart

Uphill Hopes

Making the NCAA tournament is an accomplishment that a team or program can wear its sleeve. They can be proud of that. They can show it off.

WKU hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2013. The Hilltoppers don’t have a player on the team that has worn the red and white in an NCAA tournament game.

In last year’s pursuit of the big dance, WKU fell short in the semifinals of the Conference USA tournament to high-volume scorer Trey Freeman and the Monarchs of Old Dominion.

The Tops came up short in the past few seasons under Ray Harper when they had hopes of making the NCAA tournament after Harper guided the team to the Big Dance in 2013.

In 2013 the Tops were placed in a No. 1 seed versus a No. 16 seed matchup against Kansas. WKU put up a valiant fight with the perennial powerhouse Jayhawks, taking a one-point lead into halftime.

The game went down to the final minutes, but WKU ultimately fell short of pulling off the monumental upset of being the first 16 to knock off a 1 seed. Kansas won by a final score of 64-57.

That same season, WKU won the Sun Belt Conference tournament after winning four games in four days in Hot Springs Arkansas. After falling to Kansas, the Tops finished their season with a 20-16 record.

In 2014 WKU fell in the first round of the Sun Belt tournament to Louisiana Lafayette and saw their season end at 21-11 while finishing second place in the conference on the season.

The opportunity for Rick Stansbury and his squad to sneak into the tournament is coming, and coming fast. In order for the Tops to make the tournament they will have to secure an automatic bid by winning the C-USA tournament.

At this point in the season, every team is chasing the first place Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, who might have a shot at an at-large bid should they fall in the conference tournament. MTSU boasts a 25-4 record with marquee wins over Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Belmont and Murray State University.

It looks like all roads to a C-USA tournament championship will go through the Blue Raiders.

WKU will likely have to win four games in four days in order to advance to the NCAA’s.

The Toppers have just two regular season games remaining before they enter post season play.

This week WKU will face off against North Texas on Thursday and Rice on Saturday. Both games are set to tip-off at 7 p.m.

Stansbury and company have not taken the court with either team this year, giving the Tops an opportunity to play freely within themselves as their opponents haven’t had a prior look at the group WKU puts on the floor.

North Texas (8-20) is sitting at 13th in C-USA and has been struggling as of late. They recently fell to the Golden Eagles of Southern Mississippi (9-20) by a final score of 76-53.

The Tops should be able to utilize their talent and experience on the perimeter to get back in rhythm before battling with the Owls of Rice.

Rice is on the other end of the spectrum of the conference. With a 20-9 record on the year the Owls are currently fifth in the conference. Rice is on a roll right now as they just knocked off the second place team in C-USA, the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs 88-81.

Rice will prove to be a tough test for the Toppers in the last contest of the regular season. It is senior night for the Toppers so look for some impressive performances from the five WKU seniors

Junior Lomomba, Pancake Thomas, Que Johnson, Anton Waters and Ben Lawson will have one final shot to advance deep in the post season. The talented group of seniors will have to lead the team for their goals to be achieved.

It would be a refreshing and unexpected mark for the seniors and first-year head coach Rick Stansbury to make the NCAA tournament after starting the season with a 13-16 record. 

Reporter Matthew Stewart can be reached at 859-797-3140 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @MES_WKU22.