Western Ky is the losers' favorite in NCAA tourney
DAYTON, Ohio (AP) - A losing record. Two head coaches in three months. A fan base so disinterested that only 2,000 showed up for a dollar-ticket promotion, one that ended with the most bizarre loss of all.
Western Kentucky has spent an entire season redefining the long shot.
The Hilltoppers (15-18) pulled off one of the most remarkable turnarounds, going from a down-and-out team to one that's ready to open the NCAA tournament before a presidential audience on Tuesday night against Mississippi Valley State.
Looking for the tournament's biggest underdog? Can't top the Hilltoppers.
"A lot of people are underestimating us,'' freshman guard Derrick Gordon said.
With good reason. They've spent most of the season playing down to the lowest estimates.
A young team, featuring seven freshmen, lost 11 of its first 16 games. The low point came on Jan. 5, when Louisiana-Lafayette somehow managed to get six players on the floor for the winning shot in a 72-70 overtime win.
And that wasn't even the most embarrassing thing about that game. The school offered $1 tickets to lure back fans, and only 2,137 decided the Hilltoppers were worth a buck.
The next day, coach Ken McDonald was fired, replaced by assistant Ray Harper. The Hilltoppers responded by losing their next three games.
"I'm pretty sure everybody's minds were like going crazy,'' senior guard Kahlil McDonald said. "But it shows how tough we are because we got through it and we got a conference championship. And now we're here.''
Harper and his staff had little going right.
"We weren't a very good basketball team,'' Harper said. "We weren't playing very well.''
Harper emphasized improvement each day, and got it. The Hilltoppers toughened on defense, won a few games, gained some confidence and pulled off a fantastic finish, winning their last six games, including four in four days at the Sun Belt tournament.
They're the first team since Coppin State in 2009 to reach the tournament with a losing record. They're only the fourth team since 1997 to reach the NCAA tournament after a midseason coaching change, according to STATS LLC.
Wisconsin made the tournament in 2001, after coach Dick Bennett retired three games into the season. Utah did it in 2004, when Rick Majerus was hospitalized during the season and left because of his health. Indiana played in the 2008 tournament after Kelvin Sampson was fired in February for rules violations.
Few teams recover from a coaching change, which says something about these Hilltoppers.
"They've learned some lessons that will carry them, help them much longer than the basketball season,'' Harper said. "It's going to help them through life, that there will be tough days, but you must stay and believe.''
They felt at home for their workout on Monday evening at University of Dayton Arena. Twenty-one fans stretched out in the stands to watch their hour-long practice, which began with the public address announcer introducing the team.
"Ladies and gentlemen,'' the announcer said, his voice filling the arena, "please welcome the Hilltoppers to the court.'' A few fans applauded. Harper stood and midcourt with arms crossed, working over a wad of gum while his players passed and shot in an otherwise quiet arena.
Yes, still underdogs.
They'll take their six-game winning streak against Mississippi Valley State (21-12), which won 17 in a row during the season and will be trying for its first NCAA tournament win in school history. The Delta Devils are 0-4 all-time.
Not only will they open the 68-year tournament together, they'll also have the nation's highest-ranking basketball fan in the stands - President Barack Obama, who loves to play and picks an NCAA bracket each season. Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron are flying in on Air Force One to watch the game at UD Arena.
Last year, Obama picked all four No. 1 seeds to reach the Final Four, with Kansas winning it all. Instead, Connecticut - a long shot at the start of the tournament - came away with its third national title.
A year later, Obama will get to watch the tournament opener, which includes the longest of long shots.
"Now, that's an experience,'' Mississippi Valley State coach Sean Woods said. "We can embrace that. How many times do you get the President to come watch you play?
"But even then, Western Kentucky is still trying to beat your butt. So let the President enjoy how hard you play and how good you play together, so he can have something good to say about you.''
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