The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers are ready for the Kansas Jayhawks. That might not be enough to beat Kansas but it might be sufficient to give the Jayhawks a test on Friday.
Western Kentucky can win because…
They knows how to put together runs in
March - not just scoreboard runs, but strings of consecutive games in which the
team plays well within a knockout NCAA tournament.
Realize this about Western Kentucky:
In the past two regular seasons combined, Western Kentucky has finished under
.500 – 17 wins and 19 losses – in the Sun Belt Conference, its annual home for
league play in January and February (with a pinch of December and March thrown
in as well). This is totally different from the regular season champion of the
Sun Belt in each of the past two years, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders. That
team - which got into the NCAA tournament as one of the final at-large
selections on the board - posted a 33-3 Sun Belt record in those two seasons,
14-2 in 2012 and 19-1 this year. Yet, while Middle Tennesee has stumbled early
in each of the past two Sun Belt Tournaments, Western Kentucky – under coach
Ray Harper – has managed to win four games in four days in back-to-back years.
Yes, Western Kentucky - despite failing to earn a first-round bye in each of
the past two Sun Belt tourneys - has gone 8-0 in the event. Harper might not
get the most out of his players from the middle of November through the end of
February, but in March, he's become something of a magician. Winning four out
of four elimination games in one month of March as a low seed is one thing;
doing it in consecutive years as a team seeded sixth or lower in a league
tournament is quite another.
If you’re making your sports picks
in this spot, here's the kicker about Western Kentucky you should know: after
it won the Sun Belt Tournament last season, it did not relax or become more
casual on the court. The Hilltoppers won a 16-seed play-in game last year
against Mississippi Valley State, and they gave Kentucky a half-decent game in
the round of 64, losing by only 15 points, 81-66. Western Kentucky can
certainly hang around for one half in this game on its own terms. If Kansas
can't hit shots in the second half, well, the possibility of an upset
Kansas can win because…
The Jayhawks have the mindset of a
winning team. Kansas is not likely to let down its guard or just roll the ball
on the court and expect to win merely by showing up. Kansas coach Bill Self is
a tremendous motivator. He got his team to not only win the Big 12 Tournament,
but with three wins of at least 15 points or more against decent opposition.
Many regular season conference champions then let up in their league
tournaments, because they fell they've already won something and don't have to
go the extra mile. Kansas, though, continues to excel at winning the Big 12
Tournament, a testament to its determination and consistency. There might be an
attractive pick for a 16 seed over a 1 seed eventually, but it's not in this
game. Kansas is too powerful for Western Kentucky. Shot-blocking specialist
Jeff Withey is going to destroy the Hilltoppers within five feet of the rim.
Withey, more than anyone else, will be able to mask Kansas' deficiencies if the
Jayhawks are not on top of their game on Friday.
Outlook & Prediction:
This feels like a total wipeout on
the NCAA basketball odds. Yes, Western Kentucky gave Kentucky a good 15 minutes
of basketball last year but the Hilltoppers can only so do much in the face of
Kansas' size. Western Kentucky did not have a great regular season and might
very well find it difficult to generate fresh momentum in the round of 64. Take
Kansas with your NCAA basketball picks and in your bracket.
NCAAB Pick: Kansas -20 at Bet365