Road to NCAA filled with challenges

Josh Buckman

While coaches and players are focusing on the opening games of the basketball season some fans are talking about Western’s chances of advancing to the NCAA Tournament.

But before the Hilltoppers and first-year coach Darrin Horn can advance to the Big Dance, they will have to make it through a regular season that includes five NCAA tournament teams from last season.

Former coach Dennis Felton may have left to coach at Georgia, but his fingerprints can be seen all over this year’s schedule.

To help mold the Hilltoppers into a team that could compete in the tournament, Felton believed the team should schedule as many games against highly ranked opponents as possible. Three of the team’s first four games are against NCAA tournament teams.

And after an 86-64 loss at Auburn last Friday, Western already has a taste of the tough schedule.

“We have a challenging schedule, (and) we are excited about it,” Horn said. “And we’re looking forward to taking those head on and looking forward to the opportunity to test ourselves early and find out exactly where we are.”

At the same time Horn admits that he would not have designed the schedule this way.

“Had I been structuring the schedule myself, in all honesty, we probably would have slipped one in we thought we could get early on,” Horn said.

After a stop at Virginia Commonwealth at 6:30 tonight, the Hilltoppers will try to keep their 36-game home winning streak alive on Saturday against Mississippi State.

“It’s an honor playing a big time school,” senior Mike Wells said. “But you’ve got to take it one game at a time.”

After facing the Bulldogs, the Hilltoppers will travel to Nashville on Dec. 4 to play Louisville in one of the season’s most talked about games.

Two years ago, Western and Louisville had a contract to play each other on their home courts in alternating years. However after the first game was played in 2000 at Freedom Hall, incoming Cardinal coach Rick Pitino decided not to play in Bowling Green.

After a lot of publicity, the Cardinals agreed to play Western – but not at Diddle Arena. The game will be played at the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville.

“We’re just going to go out and play hard,” senior Todor Pandov said. “We’re not looking hard for any answers.”

The next two games against Murray State and Austin Peay may look like a walk in the park, but both these teams are traditional powerhouses in the Ohio Valley Conference.

The Murray State game will pit two former Conference USA assistant coaches – Darrin Horn at Marquette and Mick Cronin formerly of Louisville – against each other.

Even though the game may look in Western’s favor on paper, the Racers have taken four of the last six meetings.

The Sun Belt Conference portion of the schedule will start on Jan. 7 at Arkansas State. In the preseason polls, the Hilltoppers were predicted to finish first in the Eastern Division.

“I’m not nearly as concerned about that as I am how we’re playing late February,” Horn said.

One of the biggest challenges in the conference is expected to be Middle Tennessee out of the Eastern Division. Louisiana-Lafayette and North Texas are also expected to put up a fight come tournament time.

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