Stephens: Toppers need ‘Big Three’ plus some tonight

Brad Stephens

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Through one night of NCAA Tournament action, the daunting mark still stands.

No. 16 seeds Davids have faced No. 1 seeds Goliaths 114 times in the history of the NCAA Tournament. All 114 No. 16 seeds came up empty.

Southern almost pulled it off Thursday afternoon against Gonzaga, taking the No. 1 seed Zags to the final seconds before losing 64-58.

More often the No. 1 seed coasts to an opening round win. Louisville did to the tune of 79-48 Thursday night against North Carolina A&T.

Now at 8:50 p.m. tonight, WKU gets a chance to do what Southern, North Carolina A&T and 112 of its fellow underdogs have failed to do — take down the big guy.

The big guy this time is the South No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks. KU features two second-team All-Americans in center Jeff Withey and swingman Ben McLemore and a rabid fan base that’ll take over the Sprint Center tonight.

The Toppers, 20 1/2 point underdogs as of last night, will be playing virtually on the road with a lot of players never offered by the Kansases of the world.

WKU doesn’t have a potential No. 1 draft pick like the high-flying McLemore. It doesn’t have a dominant, shot-swatting center like Withey.

The Toppers aren’t a team of stars. They’re a team of loose, confident and (finally) healthy players who settled into their roles in time for another postseason run.

“It will be much like the (Sun Belt) tournament where we had different guys step up each game,” coach Ray Harper said Thursday. “We’re going to need a lot of guys to step up and play well tomorrow night.”

When WKU won the Sun Belt title earlier this month in Hot Springs, Ark., it did so with key contributions from several characters.

The trio of George Fant, T.J. Price and Jamal Crook combined for 50 of the Toppers’ points in a 62-59 quarterfinal win over South Alabama.

Crook and Fant struggled the next night against Arkansas State, combining for more fouls (nine) than points (eight). But Price (24 points) and Brandon Harris (11 points) saved the day and carried WKU to a 58-56 win.

Price came out cold in the title against FIU, going 3-of-10 from the field. But Crook and Fant recovered from their off-night against ASU, scoring 17 points apiece in a 65-63 win.

“That’s the beauty of this team,” Fant said Thursday. “There’s not just one guy… It’s important for our whole team to come out there and give is something.”

The Toppers got to this point only after struggling with injuries for much of the year. They had two healthy guards about three months ago — Harris and walk-on Percy Blade.

Crook had to come back from a broken foot. Price had to fight through a nagging ankle sprain. Backup point guard Kevin Kaspar battled a tweaked hamstring. Caden Dickerson only recently regained his shooting touch after injuring a shoulder in November.

“Once again, that belief came in that we’ll never quit,” Price said. “We came as a big family this year.”

Now that the family is healthy and clicking, WKU will need each of those family members to step up tonight against the Jayhawks.

Harris and Dickerson will have to hit some shots to take the pressure off Price, who’ll be hounded by KU defensive ace Travis Releford.

Kaspar must keep the offense running when Crook goes to the bench for a breather.

Backup forwards O’Karo Akamune and Kene Anyigbo will need to help Fant and center Aleksejs Rostov against a talented front line that includes Withey, Kevin Young and Perry Ellis.

WKU has little hope for breaking that 0-114 mark by No. 16 seeds if it doesn’t get contributions from its entire rotation.

But in the end the Toppers’ success will likely come down to their Big Three — Crook, Fant and Price.

Crook’s the veteran leader that makes the offense run. Fant’s the inside banger that can get the job done on the inside, defensively and offensively. “Tournament T.J.” Price is the scorer with a history of getting it done in the postseason.

When those three play well, WKU wins. When those three don’t, WKU usually doesn’t.  

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

There have been 114 No. 16 seeds have tried to take down a No. 1 and 114 of those have failed.

If Fant, Price, Crook and the rest of the gang play to their potentials tonight, they may just make a little history.