WKU fans watching this season’s Sun Belt Conference Tournament at home can be forgiven for changing the channel — they may have thought they were watching a repeat of last year’s tournament.
The Toppers ripped off four wins in four days to run the table at the Sun Belt Tournament. Sounds familiar, right?
That’s because it’s happened before. Just last season, WKU came in to the conference tournament a No. 7 seed before beating four conference opponents to earn spot in the NCAA Tournament.
The biggest difference between that year and this one? This season, the Toppers came into the tournament as the No. 6 seed.
Senior guard Jamal Crook counted another similarity to last season: the amount of people who wrote the Toppers off from the beginning.
“They counted us out last year, and they definitely counted us out this year and we did it,” he said. “We’re champs — again.”
It seems like there’s something about hot Springs, Ark., that brings out the best in coach Ray Harper and the Toppers.
WKU has an 8-0 record in SBC Tournament games during two runs under Harper.
The coach said it was mental strength, not some unseen advantage at the neutral court, that has helped the Toppers through their two recent conference titles.
“It’s a mindset, it’s mental toughness — are you mentally tough enough to play through a little fatigue?” he said after the title win. “Both teams were a little fatigued tonight from the games, but I think it’s more mental than anything.”
One difference that sticks out between the two SBC Tournament runs is scoring differentials.
The Toppers relied on defense, not offense, to get them through the tournament this season, averaging 64.8 points per game while holding opponents to an average of 59.5 per game. Last season, WKU averaged 69 points per game — never scoring less than 67 over the course of the four games — and held the competition to 64.8 points.
Junior guard Brandon Harris, a transfer from Otero Junior College in Colorado, wasn’t around for last season’s run but played a big role this time around. He was named to the all-SBC Tournament team and averaged 8.5 points per game while shooting 45.5 percent 3-point shooting.
Harris said his teammates never told him what the feeling of winning the conference tournament felt like.
“They never told me about it at all,” he said. “They just told me, ‘Brandon, go out here, and you’ll know what it feels like. Go out here and play hard and you’ll know what it feels like.’ And they were right. I know what it feels like now.”
Like last season, WKU will enter the tournament as a No. 16 seed. Last season the lost to No. 1 seed Kentucky as the Wildcats rolled their way to an NCAA Tournament title win. The Toppers will kick off the tournament with a date with No. 1 seed Kansas Friday at 9 p.m. in Kansas City.
President Gary Ransdell said, like last year, WKU is back where it belongs in March — in the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s part of our DNA, part of our history. It’s where we belong — in the postseason,” Ransdell said.