Western Kentucky and no. 24 Middle Tennessee will – virtually – play for a Conference USA championship at 7 p.m. Thursday inside the Murphy Center.
The Blue Raiders, riding a 10-game win streak, are on the cusp of a second straight regular-season league title.
The Hilltoppers, winners of six straight in their own right, need to upset their chief rival and then win Saturday at Alabama Birmingham.
The matchup televised by CBS Sports Network has all the makings of being a classic the entire college basketball nation will have its eye on.
“That’s the way it’s supposed to be. A meaningful game. You guys are talking about it, national media’s talking about it, that’s the way it’s supposed to be,” WKU coach Rick Stansbury said. “Now you can talk about a rivalry a little bit. I didn’t understand – everybody talked about Middle being a rivalry. Well a rivalry’s not when we go on their home court last year and it’s a third full. That’s not a rivalry. A rivalry’s when you go on the road somewhere and that gym’s packed.
“They come here it’s packed. We go there it’s packed. That’s what a real rivalry’s about, no matter what your records are. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. I think it speaks for both teams being able to get to that point right now.”
Western and Middle have met 135 times, a series historically dominated by the team in red. From 1931-2010 the Tops won 88 of the 109 games between the two programs.
But MTSU has owned the rivalry of late, winning 12 of 14 – including a 66-62 win at E.A. Diddle Arena in January and a 26-point thrashing of the Tops on Feb. 16, 2017.
“I’m sure they’re better and we feel like we’re better,” Stansbury said. “We’ll see if we’re good enough to go down there and win on their home court.”
Middle Tennessee leads Conference USA in attendance having averaged 6,225 fans per game in the 11,520-seat Murphy Center. That building is likely to be filled to the brim when teams take the floor Thursday.
The setting will create the second-largest crowd WKU has played in front of all season (behind the 17,287 announced at Wisconsin). The Hilltoppers are OK with that.
“I hope there’s a sea of red down there, but when we be on the road, we’ve kinda gotten used to it just being us guys," WKU senior Justin Johnson said. "We create our own energy and you can see how much fun we have together on the court. On the road I think you have to do more of that. At the end of the day it’s only the five guys on the court and your guys sitting over there that you travel with. We’ll create our own energy and we’re pretty good at doing that.”
Western’s mindset better match its execution – and it better play at a higher level than it did in the first meeting. Nick King (28) and Giddy Potts (16) will Middle to a four-point win in January and the Blue Raiders made 14 of 16 free throws, had 11 offensive rebounds and 10 second-chance points.
The Hilltoppers, meanwhile, turned the ball over 15 times, shot an atypical 10 free throws, had just four fastbreak points and got relatively little production out of senior guard Darius Thompson (who tied to play through illness).
Stansbury’s unit is certainly playing at a much higher level than that outing, especially over the past three weeks – but so is Middle Tennessee.
“I feel like as a team we’re having the most fun right now," said Thompson, a Murfreesboro native. "We’re not worrying about others, just kinda focusing in on ourselves and enjoying the time we have together. It’s been huge for us. The past two or three weeks we’ve probably been playing our best basketball that we have and it’s pretty much because focusing in ourselves.”
The magnitude of Thursday’s showdown is also heightened by both teams searching and hoping for an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. Middle Tennessee is in much better shape in that regard with a top-25 ranking from The Associated Press and a Ratings Percentage Index of 25.
Western Kentucky has much more work to do despite its 22 wins, an RPI of 54, victories over Old Dominion (twice) and No. 8 Purdue. Losses to Belmont, Missouri State, Ohio and Texas San Antonio have damaged WKU’s resume over time.
Leaving the state of Tennessee on Thursday with a ‘W’ in its pocket, however, would go a long way in reshaping the argument as to whether or not the Hilltoppers are a tournament team.
“I can promise you when we get on that bus Wednesday afternoon, it’s not gonna be no hope getting on that bus. Hope will go away the first lick you get in the mouth,” Stansbury said. “We’ll get on that bus with a lot of belief, because when you believe in something and believe you can do something, you keep taking those punches, and that’s what we gotta be able to do Thursday night. We gotta keep taking those punches for 40 minutes.
“I know we’re gonna have a lot of people driving down there, and everyone of you driving down there, I know this already, you believe we have a chance. You’re not going with hope now. If you are stay home. Go down there believe, because our guys are gonna go down there believing. And we’re gonna go down there ready to fight, I can tell you that.”
• Western Kentucky has an RPI of 54, a KenPom ranking of 55, a BPI of 56, a KPI ranking of 61 and a Sagarin ranking of 74.
• Middle Tennessee has an RPI of 25, a BPI of 41, a KenPom ranking of 42, a KPI ranking of 46 and a Sagarin ranking of 53.
• The Hilltoppers have outscored their opponents 1,192-854 in the paint this season.
• Western has made at least one 3 in 967 straight games.
• The Blue Raiders have made at least one 3 in 702 straight games.
• Middle is 90-14 at the Murphy Center has since 2011.
• Senior center Dwight Coleby (55) is 10th for blocks in a single WKU season. Ben Lawson and Darius Hall are ninth, each having a season with 57.
• Thompson has 143 assists, the ninth-most assists in a single WKU season. A.J. Slaughter is eighth with 147.
• Johnson (1,548) is 15th on WKU’s all-time scoring list. A.J. Slaughter is 14th with 1,581 career points.
• Johnson is fifth with 970 career rebounds at WKU. Jim McDaniels is fourth with 1,118.
• Johnson has 34 career double-doubles, tied with Greg Smith for the fifth-most in a WKU career. Chris Marcus is fourth with 38.
• Johnson (485) is ninth for free throws attempted in a WKU career. McDaniels is eighth with 514.
• Johnson is ninth in WKU history with 3,455 minutes played. Slaughter is eighth with 3,550.
• Johnson is tied for eighth in WKU history having played 126 career games. Courtney Lee, Boris Siakam and Orlando Mendez-VAldez each played 127.
• WKU freshman Taveion Hollingsworth (393) needs 20 points to move past Derrick Gordon (412) for the third-most points in a single WKU season by a freshman.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop