BASKETBALL: Tops’ conference standing will depend on MTSU game

Jay Lively

Although Saturday is senior appreciation night for three Hilltoppers, players and fans hope to see the trio play four more home games en route to a Sun Belt Conference Championship.

Western is currently second in the East Division and will try to make the road to the championship game a little easier tonight as they travel down the highway to Middle Tennessee State (14-11, 6-6 Sun Belt).

Depending on what division leader Arkansas- Little Rock (8-4, 15-10) does in its final two regular season games, both on the road, Western could come away with a top seed by winning in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and then coming home to beat Florida International on Saturday.

Senior center Nigel Dixon said the team is focused on Middle Tennessee and not looking ahead to the tournament.

“It might be one of the biggest games of the year for us right now,” Dixon said. “It’s going to (determine) the final conference standings. We just have to go play hard, cut down on our mistakes and get a win.”

Western barely escaped with a 70-66 victory on Feb. 5 against the Blue Raiders in the first meeting of the year.

Coach Darrin Horn said he expects the same kind of battle going into tonight’s game.

“It’s going to be a very hostile environment and they’re going to be hungry to beat us,” Horn said. “The most important thing is that we come out and play with an unbelievably competitive nature and unselfishness that you need to be playing with at this time of year.”

Win or lose, Western will still be jockeying for a high seed when it comes home to play Florida International on Saturday for senior appreciation night.

Although fans will get a chance to see their favorite seniors at least once more during the tournament, fans can pay their respects to guard Mike Wells, forward Todor Pandov and Dixon, who will be playing their final regular season game at Diddle Arena.

“I think the good things about our seniors is that all of them have really tried to do what is necessary for them to be their best and to help implement a new system,” Horn said. “From that stand point they’ve been really good.”

As fifth-year seniors, Wells and Pandov have been familiar faces in the community for years, being part of three tournament and three regular season championships.

“I’ve been through a lot here in this program,” Wells said. “My time here has meant a lot to me.

I’ve had a great career and I’m thankful for the coaches that I’ve had and the players and the fans that have helped me be successful.”

Pandov has been sidelined with injuries for the majority of his final two years at Western, but the Bulgarian said he has no regrets.

“It’s been hard the past couple of seasons but that’s life,” Pandov said. “Successful people find a way to be successful despite difficult obstacles they may face.”

A transfer from Florida State, Dixon fulfilled the hype he received after joining the team and helped put Western on the national radar screen.

“I’ve matured as a person and grew as player,” Dixon said. “I’ve had a chance to play with a good team and have great teammates and great fans so it’s been a pleasant experience my one year of playing here. I’m a Hilltopper and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Reach Jay Lively at [email protected]