Hilltoppers, Jaguars Take Center Stage Thursday Night

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

Before Gonzaga, Southern Illinois and George Mason, there was Western Kentucky, Charlotte and UAB.

The three schools were among the dominant programs in the Sun Belt Conference through the late-1970s through the early 1990s, an era when the Sun Belt was arguably the nation's premier mid-major conference before being mid-major was cool.

Charlotte reached the Final Four in 1977. UAB made the regional finals in 1982. Western Kentucky beat Memphis State and Seton Hall before bowing out in the round of 16 in 1993. Between 1977 and 1995, at least one Sun Belt team made it out of the first round 12 times, and 11 times in 18 years the conference received multiple bids, including four in 1986.

Yet over the last 14 years, March Madness has given way to March Sadness, as defections and conference realignment have turned the Sun Belt into a "mid-major" in name only.

The conference hasn't received an at large bid since 1994, and the automatic qualifier has gone just 1-13 over that span.

There have been some near misses, namely Western Kentucky in 2006, when the Hilltoppers dominated the conference during the regular season before being drubbed by South Alabama in the tournament final, a loss that drained most of the drama out of Selection Sunday. Winning 23 games, going 12-2 in the conference didn't matter because of one critical loss.

"When you're in a league like the SBC, any league that is 10 or below (in the Ratings Percentage Index) they're looking for reasons to keep you out more so than reasons to keep you in," said Western Kentucky coach Darrin Horn.

The Hilltoppers took little consolation when told they were among the last teams out, and the snakebit feeling of that cold March evening two years ago has stuck with them.

"We use it as a reminder," Horn said. "All we can control is what we can control. This year, they've done a great job of focusing on that."

Have they ever. The Hilltoppers are cruising along at 21-5 overall and 13-1 in the Sun Belt. They've won 11 straight games, eight of them by double-figures.

"We've just been trying to handle our business," said star guard Courtney Lee.

So has South Alabama. Like the Hilltoppers, the Jaguars are 21-5. Like the Hilltoppers, the Jaguars have 13 conference wins. Like the Hilltoppers, the Jaguars have solid nonconference victories. Western Kentucky beat Michigan and Nebraska, while South Alabama knocked off Mississippi State.

The similarities don't end there. Both have a couple of near-misses against Top 25 teams. The Hilltoppers lost by six to No. 2 Tennessee in Nashville, while the Jaguars fell to No. 20 Vanderbilt in double-overtime on the road. Both are breathing rarefied air in the RPI. The Jaguars were 37th and the Hilltoppers 48th through Tuesday's games.

Horn and South Alabama coach Ronnie Arrow think their teams have built resumes that should pass the smell-test with the selection committee.

Yet there can be only one automatic qualifier, and the coaches allow there's no guarantee either team will make the conference tournament final, let alone win it.

Maybe this is the year they don't have to if they want to get in.

Ask Horn if he thinks the Sun Belt — whose RPI this season is 15, up from 20 a year ago — is making strides toward becoming a multiple-bid league and he says the conference is already there.

"It's a multiple-bid league right now," Horn said. "We've got two teams that are tournament-worthy teams. I think the only difference between the Sun Belt and other leagues ... like the Colonial Athletic, the (Missouri) Valley and the Mountain West is that they've won games in the tourney recently."

The Sun Belt's last tournament win was by Western Kentucky in 1995, when Horn was an all-conference guard for the Hilltoppers. Horn said the quality of play in the conference may be higher now than it was then, and Sun Belt commissioner Wright Waters points to a stretch in November and December in which Sun Belt schools posted seven wins against major-conference programs, including victories over N.C. State, Iowa and Oklahoma State.

"It's one of those deals where you start thinking we can play with a lot of people," Waters said. "I think we've played better schedules and found out we've had some success. ... We can play with anybody on a given night."

Western Kentucky's five losses were one-possession games in the final two minutes. South Alabama's five losses have been by a combined 19 points. No team in the history of the Sun Belt that ended the conference tournament with at least 24 wins has missed the NCAA tournament.

Still, there's plenty of anxiety. Maybe New Orleans or Middle Tennessee or defending league champion North Texas gets hot and wins the conference tournament. Maybe Lee or South Alabama sharpshooter Demetric Bennett get injured. Maybe neither team even makes it out of the conference tournament's first round.

It gives Thursday's rematch in Bowling Green, Ky. — South Alabama beat the Hilltoppers 65-61 on Jan. 5 — a tournament feel. The winner takes a major step forward, while the other likely needs to win the conference title to get in.

Yet as of now, both teams are considered firmly inside "the bubble," a dreaded destination for most major programs, but heady territory for the Sun Belt. While the coaches down play the chatter, they know they can't tune it out.

"Because of the Internet, you're not going to hide anything," Arrow said. "Players can read, and they're going to see what's going on. But you just have to do what you're supposed to do. This is the time of year that the committee is looking for the best team to get in, and that's what we'll try to do."


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