COLUMN: This tournament’s for the 1,800

WKU players hold up the Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship trophy. WKU beat North Texas 74-70 to win the Sun Belt’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. It will be WKU’s 22nd appearance in the NCAA Tournament and its first since 2009.

Brad Stephens

Look out for the bandwagon when you’re driving to Dayton on Tuesday.

Word has it it’s taking new passengers by the hour.

You’ll notice the bandwagon won’t have headlights. No, they’ll be switched out for glowing Harper Heads.

The people inside will be singing rounds of “99 red towels on the wall” and trying to confirm rumors that the Ohio River did indeed part on Sunday night when Harper’s team bus crossed the bridge into Cincinnati.

The Toppers are headed to the NCAA Tournament again, carrying a six-game win streak into a first round matchup with Mississippi Valley State at 5:30 p.m. CST on Tuesday.

It’s been a fun couple of weeks for a program that hasn’t had much fun the past few years.

But to really appreciate the ride, you have to be there for the whole thing.

And that’s why the Toppers’ trip to the tourney should be dedicated not to the bandwagon, but to a group of 1,800 people.

These were the folks that were there when the lows hit their lowest on the Thursday night of Jan. 5.

Their numbers were originally thought to be 2,137, a figure which Athletics Director Ross Bjork confessed a day later to being “bumped up.”

He said it was more accurate that around 1,800 people were in Diddle Arena that night to see the now-infamous “six-man game,” in which Louisiana-Lafayette beat WKU 72-70, hitting a layup in the closing seconds with an undetected extra player on the floor.

Many of those 1,800 were probably the same people that were in Diddle on New Year’s Eve when the Toppers were embarrassed by Florida International.

Many of those folks were probably there on Dec. 17 to see WKU lose to Southern Conference lightweight Furman.

These people had probably seen plenty of other disappointing Topper losses firsthand throughout the Ken McDonald Era.

Yet the fact that these 1,800 people were in Diddle Arena for the ULL game, watching a team whose play was nearly unwatchable at the time, shows the definition of a true fan.

One day later, of course, McDonald was fired and Ray Harper promoted.

Two months later, WKU was dogpiling at mid-court in Summit Arena celebrating a Sun Belt Championship and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

The team was back, and so were a lot of fans that had once given up on the Toppers.

But there were 1,800 fans that never left.

They stuck with this WKU team when no one else did, and now get to celebrate its success with a little more perspective.

They saw firsthand the depths to which Topper basketball had fallen, and now they get to see the Toppers in the Big Dance.

For those supporters, this tournament is for you.