Big Opportunities: Tops prepare for top teams in Conference USA

Senior guard Aaron Crosby takes a free throw shot against Old Dominion during the Hilltopper’s game, Feb. 18. Cosby went 6-8 from the line in the 59-56 loss. Jacob Hurdt/HERALD

Matthew Stewart

The WKU men’s basketball team (13-14) has just four games remaining in the regular season. The Hilltoppers are now preparing for a two-game road swing before heading back to Diddle Arena for the final two games of the season.

Earlier in the season, the Toppers played what might be their two best games of the year. They ended the nation’s longest win streak by knocking off the top team in Conference USA, University of Alabama, Birmingham, and went down to the wire with second-place Middle Tennessee.

This week the Toppers will have a chance to do even better. With another shot at MTSU (18-8) and UAB (22-5) this weekend, WKU has a chance to enter the conference tournament with a few nice wins.

“[MTSU and UAB] are the top two teams in the conference, and we played them very well. I feel like this second time might be better,” freshman guard Chris McNeal said.

The WKU team recognizes that it is improving on the defensive end and seems to understand the impact lockdown defense can have on its games.

WKU have been holding their opponents to fewer points as they move through the season. In their last two games, WKU held its opponent to under 60 points. Before those, that had not happened this season.

“If we hold Middle [Tennessee] under 60, it’ll be the first time we held three straight opponents under 60 since 2002,” Head Coach Ray Harper said.

The Toppers will be facing off against the Blue Raiders of MTSU Thursday at 6 p.m. in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The Toppers fell to MTSU by two points in the final seconds when the teams collided in Diddle on Jan. 30 earlier this year.

Harper knows that playing on the road, especially in the home of a longtime rival, can be a tough task.

“We got to go in there and compete and take care of the basketball, which is key to always winning on the road,” Harper said.

The Blazers of UAB will be waiting for the Toppers to come in to Birmingham on Saturday for a morning showdown at 11 a.m. UAB will be looking for revenge as the Toppers previously took them down 69-62 in Diddle.

WKU recognizes the opportunities ahead and knows they offer momentum for the team as it heads into the home stretch.

Two victories could launch WKU from No. 11 in Conference USA standings to as high as No. 7. Such a swing in the rankings would mean a pivotal change in the seeding for the upcoming conference tournament.

“It’s a big opportunity,” McNeal said. “I know we are at the bottom of the conference right now, but I still feel like we are one of the top teams in the conference. We got more confidence; we just got to show it. We got two big games, and we need to give it our all. That’s all we can do.”