MEN’S BASKETBALL: Toppers to play on ESPN2

Jay Lively

With Kentucky’s two “other” teams basking in the world of top-10 basketball and getting plenty of face time across the nation, Western fans may feel a little left out.

But on Saturday, Western will finally get to showcase its men’s basketball team and a newly renovated Diddle Arena to a national audience as it hosts New Mexico State at 3 p.m. on ESPN2.

The match-up will be the regular season’s first and only nationally televised game for the Toppers.

But before Western (7-8, 2-2 Sun Belt) goes nationwide it will head south tonight to warmer weather and face New Orleans (8-8, 2-1) who will be playing its first conference home game.

The Toppers look to build on two consecutive conference wins that have put them second in the Sun Belt’s Eastern division.

“We’ve got a lot of momentum going after those past two games,” senior forward Mike Wells said. “We just have to carry it over down at New Orleans and hopefully back at home.”

Western has struggled on the road at times this season while dropping its first two conference games.

“It’s important our players understand that playing on the road is different than playing at home,” coach Darrin Horn said. “We have to go to (New Orleans) with a tremendous amount of focus.”

The Pioneers boast a solid backcourt tandem with seniors Johnell Smith and Kyle Buggs leading the charge. They are the only starters averaging double digits in scoring. A third guard, freshman Bo McCalebb, averages 10.8 points off the bench.

“They do a really good job off the dribble and with dribble penetration,” Horn said. “We have to contain their guards and do a good job in transition.”

New Orleans was handed its first conference loss on Saturday getting pounded by Louisiana-Lafayette 85-64. The Toppers and the Pioneers last played on Jan. 16, 2002 when Western won 78-59 at home.

Win or lose, players and coaches won’t be spending much time on Bourbon Street after the game as they quickly head back to prepare for the New Mexico State game on Saturday.

“It’s a chance for Western to show the entire country what our program is all about,” Horn said.

The program will be up against Sun Belt pre-season Player of the Year James Moore, a senior forward. He leads the league in blocks (29), is third in steals (28) and fourth in field-goal percentage (.573) while averaging 15.7 points and 7.0 rebounds.

The Aggies (7-7, 1-2) also have sophomore John Duane, a 6-foot-6 guard who transferred from Missouri and averages 16.1 points to lead the Aggies. Horn doesn’t expect Duane will pose match-up difficulties for the Toppers.

“Whoever would match-up with (Duane) hopefully will create problems for him because of their athleticism and quickness,” Horn said.

Wells, who leads Western in scoring at 16.1, said the team isn’t looking past New Orleans to New Mexico State.

“(Saturday) is just another game except we’re on national TV,” Wells said. “We just have to come out and play like we know how and stick to our game plan.”

At 2-2 in league play the Toppers appear back on track after an 0-2 start but a derailment this weekend could hurt their chances of winning a fourth consecutive regular season Sun Belt championship. Two wins, however, might put the Hilltoppers at the top of the division – if not on paper than at least psychologically.

Thursday’s game in New Orleans will begin at 7 p.m.

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