Bowling Green, Ky. — Match-ups with two NCAA Sweet 16 teams from a year ago highlight the Western Kentucky University men’s basketball schedule, which was announced Thursday.
In all, the Hilltoppers — who are coming off a 22-11 campaign — will face a minimum of five NCAA Tournament participants and one team that qualified for the National Invitation Tournament. WKU will play a total of 15 contests against schools that finished with an overall winning record as well as two other teams that ended the year .500 in its conference.
“I am extremely pleased with our schedule for the upcoming season. It accomplishes our goal of playing challenging non-conference opponents, which has been and will continue to be instrumental in growing our program,” said Topper head coach Darrin Horn, who is entering his fifth season with an 82-41 overall mark. “We’re especially excited about the doubleheader that will have us matched up against Tennessee in Nashville. I think it will be a great college basketball event that will provide national exposure for our program.”
WKU will take on Tennessee — a team likely to be ranked in the top 10 in the preseason polls after falling to eventual runner-up Ohio State in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament — in Nashville, Tenn., on Dec. 15 in the second game of the Sun Belt Classic, with the contest to be televised live on ESPNU. A week later the Toppers will visit Southern Illinois, which also advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Other NCAA Tournament qualifiers on the Hilltoppers’ schedule include Eastern Kentucky (Dec. 8 in Richmond) and defending Sun Belt Conference Tournament champion North Texas (Feb. 7 in Denton). And, WKU will play Gonzaga, which has participated in each of the last nine NCAA Tournaments in the first round of the Carrs/Safeway Great Alaska Shootout on ESPNU on Nov. 22.
Other potential opponents in the field of that event include NCAA Tournament participants Butler — which lost to eventual champion Florida in the Sweet 16 — Texas Tech and Virginia Tech, NIT qualifier Michigan and Eastern Washington, which finished with a winning record. Host Alaska Anchorage rounds out the field.
The Hilltoppers will also play NIT participant South Alabama twice, visiting the Jaguars on Jan. 5 while playing host to the reigning SBC East Division champs Feb. 21.
After playing exhibition contests against Campbellsville Nov. 1 and Kentucky State Nov. 5, the Toppers open the regular season with three straight games at E.A. Diddle Arena. Kennesaw State will visit on Nov. 9, Kentucky Wesleyan is the opponent on Nov. 13 and Murray State closes out the homestand Nov. 17.
Following the Great Alaska Shootout, WKU will take on Big Sky Conference regular-season runner-up Northern Arizona Dec. 1 in Flagstaff. The Hilltoppers will play host to Big XII Conference member Nebraska — the third BCS school to visit Diddle Arena in three years — on Dec. 5, while North Carolina Central will travel to Bowling Green Dec. 18 in WKU’s final non-conference home game.
Sun Belt action begins with a Dec. 29 trip to Troy, with the Toppers returning home to take on rival Middle Tennessee on Jan. 2 in their first game after New Year’s Day. Florida International (Jan. 12), Florida Atlantic (Jan. 16), defending SBC West Division champion Arkansas State (Jan. 27) and UALR (Jan. 31) all visit Diddle Arena in the first month of the new year. WKU also visits Louisiana-Monroe (Jan. 10), Louisiana-Lafayette (Jan. 19) and New Orleans (Jan. 23) in January.
The Hilltoppers play host to Denver on Feb. 2 and Troy Feb. 13 around their match-up with North Texas. After travelling to Middle Tennessee on Feb. 16, WKU will face USA and ULM (Feb. 23) to close out the home schedule.
The final week of the regular season includes a trip to the Sunshine State to take on FIU on Feb. 27 and FAU March 1.
All game times other than Tennessee (8:30 p.m. Central) and Gonzaga (10:30 p.m.) will be released at a later date.
Each division winner and the team with the next-best league record will receive a first-round bye in the conference tournament. First-round games in the Sun Belt tourney will take place on March 5 on the home floor of the higher seed, with the quarterfinals set to take place on March 9 in Mobile, Ala. The semifinals will be the next day, with the title game on March 11.
The Hilltoppers return 11 letterwinners — including four starters — from a year ago. They have won more than 20 games in each of the last three seasons, posting a 67-28 (70.5%) mark during that stretch while qualifying for national postseason play on two occasions.