Like just about all underdogs in March, Western Kentucky men’s basketball coach Ray Harper has demonstrated nothing but respect for top-seeded Kansas University since learning his Hilltoppers would face the Jayhawks in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at 8:50 p.m., Friday in Kansas City, Mo.
But just because Harper lauds the talent of KU (29-5) does not mean he wants to see it.
“I’m trying to watch as little film as I can,” Harper said Tuesday morning during a teleconference with out-of-town media. “It makes it hard to sleep at night.”
Although the 16th-seeded Hilltoppers (20-15) figure to have dissected plenty of game film on the Jayhawks by the time tipoff rolls around, the second-year WKU head coach sounded more interested in emphasizing what his team must do to compete than anything else.
“The key for us will be real simple,” Harper said. “Take care of the basketball and eliminate silly turnovers. Every time you turn it over it’s an opportunity you don’t have to score, and we need to get it up on the rim as many times as possible Friday night.”
One reason Harper believes that is possible is the re-emergence of sophomore guard T.J. Price — last year’s third leading scorer — who missed three games this season because of injury.
“We missed him so much when he was injured,” said Harper, noting that Price was averaging 15 points and six assists per game at the time he went down.
The Hilltoppers were 1-2 without Price this season and 1-3 in games in which he played less than 10 minutes. After easing his way back into action, the 6-foot-4, 208-pound guard has been on fire down the stretch and appears well equipped to handle the scoring burden.
“The thing with T.J., he’s a very talented kid and he’s really matured in the last year-and-a-half,” Harper said. “Before, when things weren’t going well, the maturity level would get him, but he can play through those things now.”
Never was that more evident than during last weekend’s Sun Belt Conference tournament, where Price was named Most Outstanding Player after averaging 18 points and four rebounds per game while topping 22 points in two games.
Price’s strong start to the postseason helped WKU became the first team in NCAA history to win four conference tournament games in four days in back-to-back seasons to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. During the four-game stretch that included two two-point victories and one three-point win, Western Kentucky finished with fewer turnovers than its opponents and also locked in on defense, holding Florida International, Arkansas State, South Alabama and Louisiana Monroe to a combined shooting clip of 38 percent.
For the season, WKU averaged 15.1 turnovers per game and held opponents to 42 percent shooting, but Harper believes the importance of both areas will be magnified Friday night against Kansas.
“I think, this time of year, you win with your defense and your ability to rebound the basketball,” Harper said. “If we turn the ball over at a high rate, we’re in a lot of trouble, there’s no question about it. At times, that’s been something that’s been a problem for us and other times we’ve been really good. So hopefully that team that understands and values that basketball shows up Friday night.”