JIM MASHEK COLUMN/Opportunity knocks for Hilltoppers in Rocket City


ATHENS, Alabama — Long before the Sun Belt Conference days, long before Western Kentucky’s Ty Rogers stunned fifth-seeded Drake University with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, and seven years after the Hilltoppers made the only Final Four appearance in school history, Jim Richards and the Tops made something of an opportunity that more or less fell in their lap.

I would remember.

It was my senior year at WKU, and the Hilltoppers had played their way into an unlikely NCAA Tournament berth. It was Richards’ final season as the folksy, popular WKU coach, as he’d give way to Gene Keady after the season.

But for two weeks in March, 1978, the Tops gave their fans something to get excited about, when WKU won its two Ohio Valley Conference Tournament games — at E.A. Diddle Arena, mind you — while playing their way into the NCAA Tournament.

There were only 24 teams in the tournament in those days — a mind-boggling 44 less qualifiers than today — and if I’m not mistaken, the field was limited to conference champions only. (I’m sure they made an allowance for independents such as Notre Dame, but that’s beside the point).

Buoyed by ripped rebounder James Jackson and All-OVC guard Darryl Turner — my homeboy from metro Washington, D.C. — the Tops defeated East Tennessee State and Austin Peay State University to get to the tournament. They need an overtime to slip past the Governors, 77-69, in the championship game.

One week later, during WKU’s Spring Break, the Hilltoppers squared off with Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse University squad at the 12,000-seat Stokely Athletic Center on the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville. Don’t ask me who was favored, but I feel pretty confident in saying the Hilltoppers were an underdog that day.

WKU played a tough schedule that season, at least outside the OVC, and took a 15-13 record into that game against Syracuse. Most of the kids on campus had gone home, for the week, or to Fort Lauderdale or the Keys, but I stayed in town. At my final domicile while attending WKU, on 10th Avenue near the 31-W By-Pass.

It was a fast-paced, up-and-down basketball game, and I didn’t move from the little black-and-white TV bringing the tournament to the masses. Ultimately, this game went to overtime, too, and somehow, the Tops squeezed past the Orangemen, 87-86, in overtime.

The Hilltoppers got a heroes’ welcome when they got back to Bowling Green that night.

Now, the next week, WKU went to Dayton and played Michigan State, when Magic Johnson was a wide-eyed freshman doing it all for the Spartans.

The Tops lost that game. By a lot. Didn’t matter. They showed they belonged by beating Syracuse.

And now, 46 years later — that is a helluva long time, I’ll be the first to admit — the Hilltoppers are poised to make some basketball history.

First-year WKU coach Steve Lutz said he was preparing his team for the Conference USA Tournament while they were winning five games in a row in February. And nothing changed when they skidded toward the end of the regular season, losing four straight before turning their focus to the nine-team C-USA Tournament at the Propst Arena in downtown Huntsville.

(I’m about 30 minutes away, right on Interstate 65 in Athens.)

The Hilltoppers have lit it up the last two nights, rolling past New Mexico State — and 89-69 rout for their long-awaited 20th win of the season — and then a 85-54 beatdown of traditional rival Middle Tennessee State to get to tonight’s championship game.

I’m expecting the place to look a lot like Diddle South. Lots of red in the stands. Conference USA has its obvious drawbacks, but having the conference tournament three hours from the WKU campus is pretty special.

Western Kentucky hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since the 2013, when they squeezed in under the guidance of first-year coach Ray Harper. The Tops finished 20-16, bowing out after giving No. 1 overall seed Kansas a run for the money, falling 64-57 in Kansas City. There was plenty of optimism surrounding the program.

Eleven years later, with a largely reshuffled roster, Steve Lutz has gotten the Hilltoppers back to doorstep of the NCAA Tournament.

It’s hard to believe it’s taken this long, except I covered Rick Stansbury’s teams at Mississippi State, too, and the Bulldogs never got to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament during his 14-year tenure with that squad. Three times, Stansbury’s WKU squads played in the Conference USA championship game, and thrice, they went down in defeat.

The Tops made the NIT two or three times during Stansbury’s seven years in Bowling Green, and even went to New York’s Madison Square Garden for the semifinals. But they didn’t get to THE tournament, and that’s something Steve Lutz can do in his first season with the Hilltoppers.

Lutz has done a lot to change the basketball culture at WKU, and he has a talented squad. Losing Jalen Jackson, one of his best defenders, to injury before the New Year was a significant setback. Senior guard Khristian Lander missed six games, in concussion protocol, and it’s taken him a little while to get back to form. But he clearly has, as Lander showed in Friday’s rout of MTSU.

Listening to Randy Lee’s call of the second half, while driving back from Lexington, you could tell the Hilltoppers were embracing the challenge.

“Three wins in three days,” or something like that, became Lutz’s mantra as the regular season came to a close.

They’ve taken two of them. Handily.

Either way, it’s gonna be fun. Let’s see if the Tops can finish the mission.