Toppers look to turn heads in Kansas City

Lucas Aulbach

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Before WKU faces the Kansas Jayhawks tonight, the Toppers have another challenge to deal with — getting in the front door of the Sprint Center.

Playing in Kansas’ backyard — Kansas City is about 40 miles from Lawrence, Kan., home of the Jayhawks — coach Ray Harper and the Toppers had a little trouble as they entered the Sprint Center Thursday convincing security that they were there to play basketball.

“I’m sure (Kansas coach) Bill Self didn’t get asked the questions I got asked,” Harper said with a laugh at Thursday’s press conference. “They didn’t know who the heck I was.

“I told them I was a fan, I was here to enjoy some good basketball.”

Good basketball is what it’s going to take to beat the Jayhawks.

Kansas has the potential No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft in freshman guard Ben McLemore and another possible first-rounder in senior center Jeff Withey.

The Jayhawks have history on their side as well. A win by No. 16 seed WKU over No. 1 seed Kansas would go on the short list of biggest upsets in college basketball history — no 16-seed has ever topped a No. 1 seeded opponent in the NCAA Tournament.

Harper said he’s more concerned about the way the Toppers play on the court than the way they’re judged off it.

“We’re not concerned about the seed or those types of things,” he said. “We’re excited to still be playing after some of the adversity and things we had to overcome this season.”

Tonight’s game is similar in many ways to last year’s second round game against Kentucky. That year, the Toppers were a No. 16 seed playing a heavily favored No. 1 seed just a few miles from home — Kansas will play in Kansas City, while the Wildcats faced WKU at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville.

Sophomore guard T.J. Price said a difference between last season, when the Toppers won a first-round game against Mississippi Valley State before falling to UK, and this year is the team’s mindset coming in.

“It’s different from this year than it was last year,” Price said. “We won the play-in game but were also just happy that we made it. The main thing coming in this year is we want to penetrate in the tournament instead of just being glad to be here.”

WKU got to the NCAA Tournament this year by riding sophomore guard T.J. Price and sophomore forward George Fant through the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

Self said shutting down that duo would be an important part of Kansas’ game plan. He called Fant “terrific” and said Price is a strong scorer.

“They’re both good, and they’re going to get a lot better because they’re young,” Self said.

The difference Friday between Self and Harper could be just as important as any matchup on the court.

Self was quick to point out Harper’s postseason record — he has four national championships to his name from stints at Division-II Kentucky Wesleyan and NAIA Oklahoma City.

“Ray Harper has won the most championships. He’s terrific,” Self said. “I’ve known Ray for a while. He’s done a great job wherever he’s been and won at the highest level wherever he’s been.”

Fant said Harper is so successful in the postseason because of his great knowledge of the game.

“He knows how to prepare for a big game,” Fant said. “That’s what we’ve been doing — we’ve been preparing for a big game.

“Fortunately we have a couple of guys on our team that live for big games like this, so we’re going to see what happens.”

WKU and Kansas will tip off tonight at 8:50 p.m., with the winner going on to play the winner between a game between No. 8 seed North Carolina and No. 9 seed Villanova.

Senior guard Jamal Crook said he feels the Toppers are ready to face one of the top teams in the NCAA Tournament.

“We’ve been preparing the way we should be,” he said. “I think we’ll go out tomorrow ready to go.”