Kyle Hightower

If something feels familiar as Western prepares to open its basketball season Saturday, it’s probably no coincidence.

For the second straight year, Western will open its season on the road against a Wildcats team in a game that, if it were to win, would garner the Hilltopper program the kind of spotlight and momentum that could last an entire season.

Last season, Western sent a ripple through the college basketball world by beating the No. 4 Kentucky Wildcats on their home floor, 64-52.

Saturday, they will again face the Wildcats, this time of the Arizona variety. And though declawing the Wildcats of the Bluegrass was an impressive feat, doing it against this southwestern Cats might, in college hoops terms, teeter on the divine.

“We’re definite underdogs. Nobody expects Western Kentucky to win that game,” Western coach Dennis Felton said. “There’s not much reason to expect us to win that game. Obviously the team has to play and has their own ideas going into the game. But nobody outside of our locker room, I think, realistically expects us to win.”

Arizona is ranked No. 1 in every major preseason poll, has two Naismith Award candidates (Luke Walton and Jason Gardner) and is considered by many as favorites to win it all. Western is No. 19 in the Associated Press poll and No. 23 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll.

“Obviously, we are going to do our best to be ready,” Felton said. “You never know sometimes until the ball is thrown up. We’re working hard to get ready. It’s the first game of the season, and we work like we always work to get ready for a season. I believe we’ll be prepared.”

That preparation has included the Toppers’ two exhibition games – games in which Felton has seen vast improvement, and not just on the scoreboard.

“I thought we made a good jump from the first game to the second game,” Felton said. “The obvious thing would be the way we shot the ball, but I don’t know if that was as big of a deal as some other areas. We were going to shoot the ball better just because we were better rested.”

With center Chris Marcus still recovering from his foot surgery, Western will bring a shorter, quicker lineup into Tucson. But Arizona coach Lute Olsen is more than mindful of how well the Toppers can play without their big man.

“He brings a different thing to the floor, but I think they were 18-2 last season without him,” Olsen said at his weekly press conference.

“(Assistant coach) Rodney Tention has the scout on them, and he said that they are more difficult to defend without him because of the flexibility and because guys can step out and create problems out on the court.”

But while Olsen is careful not to discount Western, Felton remains mum about what a potential victory over the No. 1 team could do for his program.

“It would mean we were 1-0, gotten off to a successful start and have about 30 more games to play,” Felton said. “It’s one game. One game on your schedule of a lot of games. It doesn’t win us any championships.

“I’d rather be in a position like Arizona is, where nobody expects you to lose. We’re trying to get to where Arizona is.”

Still, if Arizona were ever ripe for an upset it would be now. Senior forward Luke Walton and sophomore guard Salim Stoudamire are nursing ankle injuries and sat out the Wildcats’ exhibition opener against the EA Sports All-Stars.

Both practiced this week, but it was uncertain whether they would play against Team Nike in its final exhibition game last night.

“We know we have a good basketball team that has some strong leaders and a great coach, and that’s what we have to concentrate on,” senior forward David Boyden said. “We are excited more than anything about being able to play on that stage. But you better believe that we are going to play hard and put ourselves in a position to win the game.”

Tip-off is 3 p.m. CST Saturday in Tuscon. The game will be televised locally on WKYU-PBS through the Hilltopper Sports Satellite Network.

Reach Kyle Hightower at [email protected]