Stephens: Confident Toppers win when it counts

WKU Head Coach Ray Harper congratulates senior guard Jamal Crook after winning the Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship game.

Brad Stephens

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — In a resort town known for its baths, a shower of red and white confetti rained once again Monday.

Two years, eight days, eight games, two titles. For the second straight year, Summit Arena became Bowling Green South, and WKU won the Sun Belt Conference title.

Once the Toppers advanced to Monday’s Sun Belt Tournament Championship against FIU, there wasn’t much doubt they’d be cutting down the nets. It’s just something about these players being a longshot, something about coach Ray Harper’s March track record and something about the magic of this mostly-empty convention center.

No. 6 seed WKU came out on top 65-63 Monday against No. 4 seed FIU, clinching its 43rd conference championship and 23rd NCAA Tournament trip. The Toppers got out to a hot start, battled back from an early deficit, took control of the game, nearly gave it away in the final minute, then held on to clinch the crown.

The game wasn’t pretty, but that pretty well fit this team. Nothing came easy for WKU this season, but it fought like heck to overcome its problems and come out on top.

“They counted us out last year,” senior guard Jamal Crook said, “and they definitely counted us out this year. And we did it.

“We’re champs. Again.”

You can divide the Toppers’ 2012-13 year into four distinct mini-seasons.

There was the team’s 8-2 start to the season that seemed like a carryover of its momentum from the end of the 2011-12 year.

There was the period from the Murray State loss Dec. 16 to the Jan. 26 Middle Tennessee loss when the team went 3-8. During that time its senior leader, point guard Jamal Crook, was out with a broken foot. Several other guards (T.J. Price, Kevin Kaspar, Caden Dickerson) were also battling injuries.

There was the period from a Jan. 31 win against Troy to a Feb. 16 loss to FIU when the Toppers went 2-3 while trying to get Crook, Kaspar, Price, Dickerson and everyone back healthy and acclimated into the lineup.

“Once we got guys back everyone thought we were going to be fine,” Harper said. “It’s not that easy. It takes some practices and timing.

“You could slowly see it coming back.”

And now there’s this final month of the season when WKU is peaking, once again, at the right time of the year.

The Toppers finished the regular season 3-1, then ran through four games in four days to capture the Sun Belt crown.

WKU won the tournament not because it was the most talented team in the field. Past Crook, Price, George Fant and Brandon Harris, you’d be hard-pressed to find a player that would crack the first nine of MTSU’s rotation.

In a lot of ways the Toppers won simply because that’s who they are — Western Kentucky.

WKU’s fans think of the Toppers as above anyone else in the Sun Belt. They have a point.

Teams like ULM, Troy and Louisiana-Lafayette struggle to even make the Sun Belt semifinals. Even MTSU, a school that’s won 33 league games the last two years, hasn’t made an NCAA Tournament since 1989.

By contrast WKU just qualified for its 10th NCAA Tournament since 1993. The Toppers have won games in five of those Big Dances.

Just because stars of those previous teams like Chris Robinson, Chris Marcus and Courtney Lee weren’t on the Summit Arena court Monday doesn’t mean that tradition doesn’t rub off on this current team.

WKU’s president for many of those Sun Belt Tournament titles, Gary Ransdell, summed up the Toppers’ domination of the Sun Belt.

“Over the last dozen years,” Ransdell said, “we’ve owned this tournament.”

It’s also hard to look past Harper’s track record in March during his time as a coach. He’s been to nine national championships during 13-plus seasons as a head coach across Division I, Division II and NAIA basketball.

You don’t accumulate that kind of track record without knowing how to guide a team to where it’s peaking in March.

Then you throw in the experience these players gained by being in this same position last year. All the team’s key players, other than Harris and Aleksejs Rostov, were here last year doing the same thing.

When calls weren’t going their way Saturday against South Alabama, when Fant and Crook were off their games Sunday against Arkansas State and when FIU made a last-minute charge Monday, the Topper players simply knew what to do.

The confidence that comes along with playing for the conference’s traditional power under a coach that’s a winner and alongside a bunch of players that are winners can’t be overstated.

Compare WKU’s performance this week to a team that lacks a lot of those qualities, MTSU.

With a 28-4 record and a deep roster that included standouts like Bruce Massey and Marcos Knight, the Blue Raiders should’ve ran circles around the Sun Belt Tournament. But when shots didn’t fall early for MTSU Sunday in the semifinals against FIU, a team that had no history of winning when it counts tightened up.

The Blue Raiders gave a choppy, anxious performance that showed a lack of confidence. As a result they fell 61-57 and are now squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

The Toppers don’t have to worry about that bubble because they found ways to get the job done and lock up an automatic bid.

Now awaiting WKU will likely be a No. 15 or No. 16 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. If WKU is able to avoid a Dayton, Ohio play-in game, it’ll likely get a bout with a powerhouse like Indiana or Louisville.

The Toppers would be heavy underdogs in any matchup like that, but don’t tell that to Harris, WKU’s gutty junior guard.

“This is like the semiformal,” Harris said. “Now we’re gonna win the prom.”

Call that confidence silly if you want.

But it’s because of that confidence that WKU cut down the nets Monday, once again.