Toppers look for historic win over No. 1 Kentucky

Junior Jamal Crook puts the ball up over Mississippi Valley State Tuesday at the University of Dayton Arena in Dayton, Ohio. WKU beat MVSU 59-58.

Cole Claybourn

Head Coach Ray Harper said that to win on Thursday, he’ll need his team to win the opening tip, have the shot clocks break and hold on to the ball for the rest of the game.

It’s hard to blame the coach for his strategy even if he was joking.

Harper’s surging Toppers — the lowest rated team in the NCAA Tournament field — will face National Freshman of the Year Anthony Davis and the No. 1 overall seed Kentucky Wildcats as 25-point underdogs at 5:50 CT on Thursday at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville.

Harper said his team talked briefly in the hallway after Tuesday’s win over Mississippi Valley State about UK, but not much. They’re plenty aware of the challenge that awaits them in Louisville on Thursday.

On paper, it will appear that it’s a lot of freshmen and a few upperclassmen taking on more freshmen and just a few more upperclassmen. But Harper isn’t that naive.

“They may have the top two picks in the (NBA) Draft,” he said. “Everyone’s picking them to cut down the nets in New Orleans. So, hey, we’re going to roll in there, see what happens.

“We’re playing the best basketball team in the country. I’m just happy that our guys are going to have that opportunity.”

As if a game between two in-state schools in a state where basketball reigns king wasn’t enough, there are plenty of on-the-court storylines.

Freshman forward Vinny Zollo once committed to UK under former coach Billy Gillispie before committing to WKU. Add to that freshman guard Derrick Gordon squaring up with his old high school teammate — UK star freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Also, junior guard Jamal Crook, a former Louisville Ballard High School standout, will be returning to his hometown.

It’s a matchup that’s sure to draw mixed emotions from WKU fans — many of which are also UK fans.

Zollo on Wednesday talked about his past with UK, saying it was a situation that showed how college basketball is a “business” and said going to WKU was what was best for him as a player.

As for playing the team he once envisioned suiting up for, he said it wouldn’t give him any added incentive.

“If you can’t find motivation to win an NCAA Tournament game then you just need to go home,” he said. “I’m here for my team. There’s no added incentive to go out there to win. It’s 100 percent for my team. It’s 100 percent to advance to the next round regardless of who we’re playing.”

Gordon, on the other hand, has been hoping for this matchup for a while. He said since high school, once he and Kidd-Gilchrist decided they were going to college in Kentucky, they’ve talked about how much they want to play each other.

Gordon has tweeted about the matchup multiple times and Kidd-Gilchrist was even cheering for his former St. Patrick (N.J.) teammate on Tuesday via Twitter, hoping for the matchup to happen.

But Gordon said the friendliness takes a backseat come Thursday.

“We’ll eventually say something to each other while we’re on the court because I haven’t seen him in person since I graduated,” he said. “But at the end of the day we’ve got to handle our business.

“They’re the No. 1 seed. It’s going to be real good to see them, but when the ball’s thrown in the air, that’s my enemy right there.”

UK center Anthony Davis told reporters on Wednesday that Kidd-Gilchrist has already called dibs on guarding Gordon.

“He knows that guy. He wants to stick him,” Davis said. “High school teammates, it’s always good to go against one of your high school teammates, especially around tournament time. So he definitely told us that he wanted to guard him.”

UK Head Coach John Calipari is no stranger to Gordon’s abilities. Through watching Kidd-Gilchrist in high school during his recruitment, Calipari got a first-hand look at Gordon.

“I saw him many games,” Calipari said. “As a matter of fact, I saw him hit a game-winner down in Florida when their team was floundering, and he made two baskets and then a game winner to win the game, which shows me how much courage he has.”

Calipari has also taken notice of a young Topper team that has become known for its comebacks.

That most recent comeback occurred on Tuesday, with WKU overcoming a late 53-37 deficit against Mississippi Valley State for a 59-58 win at the First Four at the University of Dayton Arena in Dayton, Ohio.

Calipari said he told his players “if you think they’re going to stop playing with 4:39 (left) down 16, you’re out of your mind. I just watched it. They’re not stopping.”

“Literally, the other games I watched, they had people — or the people had them beat. It was over,” he said. “And all of a sudden, you have to go back. ‘How did they do this?’ They made plays.

“They just play a vicious game. Ray should be proud of them. Their community should be proud of them.”

The Toppers have a chance to really make the community proud on Thursday by doing something no 16 seed has ever done before — knock off a No. 1 seed.

Freshman forward George Fant responded to a question about the kind of impact Ty Rogers’ buzzer-beater shot against Drake in the 2008 NCAA Tournament had on WKU and the community. An upset win over UK could do much more, he said.

“Not just to me, but my team — it would be a great accomplishment for my team and our city,” he said. “But we’re just here to win, not try to make buzzer-beaters. We’re just here to win.