PORTLAND, Ore. (AP)—Western Kentucky’s goal is not to repeat last season’s surprising run in the NCAA tournament. It’s to make such postseasons commonplace for the Hilltoppers.
Twelfth-seeded Western Kentucky (24-8) will have a first-round challenge this season in fifth-seeded Illinois (24-9) on Thursday.
“The biggest encouragement we can give to our team is, `How far do you want to go with this thing?”’ coach Ken McDonald said. “With as great a year as we’ve had, we don’t want this ride to end. And we want to continue to gain respect by advancing.”
Western Kentucky grabbed attention last season with a tear to the regional semifinals. As the 12th seed, the Hilltoppers first defeated Drake 101-99 in overtime, then beat San Diego 72-63 before falling to UCLA.
The victory over Drake was especially dramatic, capped by Ty Rogers’ 30-foot buzzer-beater.
With the keys to that team gone and a new head coach, Western Kentucky was considered a longshot to even return to the tournament. But the Hilltoppers nonetheless rolled through the conference and won the Sun Belt tournament to earn an automatic bid.
McDonald has said he envisions his team looked upon in the same way as Gonzaga and Memphis, mid-major teams that have a national profile.
But first there’s Illinois.
“We want to advance,” McDonald said. “We want to give our best shot at Illinois, and make sure after 40 minutes that we have no regrets.”
Western Kentucky is led by senior guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez, averaging 14 points a game, and junior A.J. Slaughter, averaging 15.8 points. They enter the tournament on a seven-game winning streak.
“We feel confident. We’ve been here before, we know what to expect,” Mendez-Valdez said. “The main thing is to just keep our composure out there and just know that its a game of runs.”
The Hilltoppers will face an Illini team still adjusting to the loss of senior guard Chester Frazier. The unquestioned leader of the team and one of the best defenders in the Big Ten injured his right hand in practice last week and had surgery on Thursday.
After he missed the conference tournament—Illinois beat Michigan but fell to eventual champion Purdue—there was some speculation that Frazier might play in Portland. He even practiced a bit on Tuesday but was ruled out.
“We thought that if he could just pass and catch, he could help us a little bit,” coach Bruce Weber said. “It’s disappointing, especially for a kid that’s been the heart and soul of our team.”
Frazier, who has played through a number of injuries in his four seasons at Illinois, suited up for practice on Wednesday, his hand wrapped with thick tape. Mostly he stood, a ball under his arm, shouting words of encouragement to his teammates.
In Frazier’s absence, Illinois will lean on inconsistent sophomore Demetri McCamey and a bench that wasn’t often tested this season. McCamey was the Illinois scoring leader this season with 11.5 points a game, but he lacks Frazier’s defensive presence.
The Illini will also turn to bench player Calvin Brock and sophomore guard Jeff Jordan, the son of Michael Jordan, who is developing a defensive presence.
“It’s not a one-man show, but when certain players on our team play well, the whole team plays well. If everybody is doing well we have enough depth to be successful,” Brock said.
Even with Frazier watching from the bench, Weber seemed a bit surprised to see that many were expecting Western Kentucky to pull off another first-round upset.
“I hope we have a little bit of motivation there, and that is will help set a little bit of a fire inside that gets us to play hard and do some things, so we can have a special performance tomorrow night,” Weber said.
The Illini do have one prominent first-round supporter. President Barack Obama picked Illinois to win in the game at the Rose Garden Thursday night.
Western Kentucky’s Slaughter was not offended.
“I saw that he picked Illinois, which is his home state, so I can’t blame him,” he said.