National radio talk show host Jim Rome asked Western Kentucky basketball coach Ray Harper to divulge the first thing that popped in his head when informed his No. 16-seeded Hilltoppers would be playing No. 1 seed Kansas University on Friday night in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“Let’s play somewhere else ... that was the first thing,” Harper said Monday, referring to Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., site of the 8:50 p.m., contest. “You know they are a basketball program with a huge tradition and a Hall of Fame coach in Bill Self, so we know the challenges that lie ahead,” Harper added.
Harper is not complaining. His (20-15) Hilltoppers made the field of 68 by winning four games in four days in the Sun Belt Conference tournament. That was the only way his squad, which went 10-10 in the conference regular season, would have garnered a bid.
“As a coach I don’t really get caught up in seeding,” said second-year WKU coach Harper. “We’re just happy we are still playing. We went through a stretch we had our entire backcourt injured. When we’ve had our entire team together we are 17-5. I was hoping they (NCAA tournament committee) would look at that, but at the same time we’re happy we’re still playing.”
Nine Hilltoppers returned this year from a team that beat Mississippi Valley State, 59-58, in a first-round 2012 NCAA Tourney game in Dayton, Ohio, then lost to eventual-champion Kentucky, 81-66, in the second round. This year, the Hilltoppers played four games against tournament teams, including Louisville and VCU and two match-ups with Sun Belt champion Middle Tennessee. WKU lost all four games.
“I heard one of the so-called experts last night said we wouldn’t be scared but we should be scared, and I can assure you we won’t be scared,” Harper told Rome.
Harper, who won two NAIA national championships at Oklahoma City University and two NCAA Div. II crowns at Kentucky Wesleyan, now is coach of a program that has made some noise in the NCAAs.
The Hilltoppers own four NCAA Tournament victories since 2008, boast 22 NCAA Tournament berths all-time, have won 42 conference championships (tied for third most in NCAA history) and are 17th in NCAA history in all-time wins. The program has advanced to the Sweet 16 seven times and qualified for the Final Four in 1971 in Houston, where it topped KU in the consolation finals.
Harper brought in a player off the 1993 NCAA Sweet 16 team — Mark Bell — to speak to his troops about the postseason.
What was Bell’s message?
“No one is talking about you right now. Nobody will be talking about you when you leave Bowling Green (for KC). When you get back home, let’s have everybody talking about you,” Harper related to Rome.