Toppers face tall task in Jayhawks

Lucas Aulbach

The road doesn’t get any easier for WKU after winning the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

After winning four games in four days to earn an NCAA Tournament berth, the Toppers are set to take on No. 1 seed Kansas Friday in the first round in Kansas City.

It won’t be easy for No. 16 seed WKU — a 16-seed has never beaten a top-seeded opponent in NCAA Tournament history.

“We know what kind of challenge it’ll be,” coach Ray Harper said Sunday after the draw was announced. “There’s never been a 16 to beat a 1, so let’s go play.”

Kansas also has the advantage of proximity. Bowling Green is over 500 miles from Kansas City; Lawrence, Kan., the home of the Jayhawks, is about 50 miles from the site of the tournament.

Kansas, which splits most minutes between seven or eight players, might not be as deep as the Toppers, but what the Jayhawks lack in depth they make up for in talent.

Kansas has the potential No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft in freshman guard Ben McLemore and another potential first-round pick in senior center Jeff Withey, considered one of the top centers in the NCAA.

Withey averages 13.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game and McLemore averages 16.4 points and 5.3 rebounds while shooting .437 percent from three-point range.

Harper said Kansas is solid even beyond its top two options, though.

“They’re just a very talented team,” he said. “I think they try and play about seven or eight guys, but we know what kind of challenge it’ll be.”

Senior guard Elijah Johnson is another Jayhawk the Toppers will keep an eye on. Johnson runs the point for Kansas and averages 10.1 points, three rebounds and 4.8 assists per game.

He is also a native of Las Vegas, the city where WKU senior guard Jamal Crook played during his senior year of high school.

Crook said his days playing Johnson back on the AAU basketball circuit will give him some added motivation.

“I owe him,” Crook said. “I played him my first game I played in, my debut in my senior year, and they beat us so I’m going to remember that game in the back of my head as we go down there and take this ride.”

The Jayhawks, who opened as a 20-point favorite over WKU, have one of the top coaches in the NCAA at the helm as well.

Bill Self, in his 10th season as Kansas’ coach, has compiled a 298-58 record in his time coaching the Jayhawks, with two NCAA title appearances and one NCAA Championship in 2008.

Self told Kansas media after the selection show he hasn’t seen WKU play a full game this season but watched some of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament Championship and became familiar with Harper while the WKU coach worked for Oklahoma City.

“They’re obviously capable, and they’re on a little bit of a run right now by winning their tournament like a lot of teams are this time of year,” Self said about the Toppers.

WKU will take the court to face Kansas Friday at 9 p.m. at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. The game will be televised on TNT.

Harper said he’s looking forward to his team taking the court against one of the nation’s best.

“Great program, great team — Bill Self does as good of a job as anyone in the country,” he said. “So, big challenge, but like I said earlier, I know our guys will go compete.”