BISHOP | Murfreesboro the place to be Thursday to watch two of the nation's best

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Rick Stansbury had pushed for E.A. Diddle Arena to be sold out for every game all season long. Unfortunately for him, his Hilltoppers have run out of home games to sell out.

So the second-year Western Kentucky coach clamored for the next-best thing.

“Go get a ticket to come to Middle,” he said. “We’ll help sell their arena out. I’ll promote their arena tonight. Go buy you a ticket and we’ll sell their arena out.”

It may be difficult for any Western fan – or any patron who is without a ticket already – to get into the Murphy Center regardless of Stansbury’s salesman push to pack the place out. Thursday night in Murfreesboro will feature a doozy – and are you really a college basketball fan if you can’t find a way to watch?

“It couldn’t be a more fun week. I mean it just couldn’t,” Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said Saturday after his boys wiped the floor with UAB. “That’s why we all do this stuff. You got your arch-rival, I would think this place will be sold out, and they’ve got a great team, a great RPI game, a game the whole nation will watch.

“It’ll be nice to wear our ranking to Thursday night so I don’t think it can get any better for Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky.”

The Hilltoppers and Blue Raiders have met 135 times already. I’ll gladly take your arguments of matchups in years past that would have had more hype than this one will have this week.

Davis’ team has won 10 straight. His program has won 79 of the last 99 games they’ve been in (a cool 79.8 percent) and is 45-7 (and counting) against Conference USA teams since the start of 2015.

In the latest The Associated Press Top 25 on Monday, Middle Tennessee still had the No. 24 next to its name.

“We thought we was top 25 the whole year, so it was no surprise, it was just a number to us,” Middle senior forward Nick King said about entering the poll last week. “The recognition was nice, but we knew we had to focus each and every day. If we did anything differently we’d probably play worse. But we just did the same thing we always do, kept the same mindset we always have, listen to coach, play hard at practice and it carries over to the game.”

As for Stansbury’s team, look out.

The Hilltoppers have had a season of phases – one that included just seven scholarship players, one that included the additions of Josh Anderson and Moustapaha Diagne and one that was highlighted by moving senior Darius Thompson off the ball and allowing junior Lamonte Bearden to run the point.

The latter stage has helped WKU win five straight, become one of the 10 best shooting teams in the nation and win its last three by an average margin of 26.3 points.

“Right now we’re just playing our best basketball,” Thompson said. “We’re going out there and having fun. You probably think you’re watching a party sometime the way we be acting on the court. But we’re having a fun time and I’m just going out there every night and competing with my brothers.”

On a broader scope, those who tune in to CBS Sports Network on Thursday will see at least one NCAA Tournament team – and in my estimation will see two. The Raiders have all but locked up a spot regardless of future results over the next two weeks. The Hilltoppers belong with the nation’s 68 best.

Whether they are included or not is not up to me.

“I think they’re talking about giving Purdue a 1 seed. That’s all I’m gonna say,” WKU senior Justin Johnson argued, citing his team’s 77-73 win over the No. 8-ranked Boilermakers in the Bahamas in November. “When we play like that right there (Saturday night against Old Dominion), we deserve to be with the best of ‘em. We can beat anybody in the country when we play like that and if we continue to go this run then we control our own fate.

“This is a really good basketball team and a fun basketball team to watch.”

The Hilltoppers will be playing in front of the second-biggest crowd to see them all season (and those of us who were in Madison know the 17,287 announced at Wisconsin was significantly inflated). That won’t be a number that necessarily hinders WKU – they seem to play better as underdogs in the face of hostility – as much as it will help Middle.

Davis’ program is 34-6 in its last 40 home games. It has also won 17 straight league contests at home. The last loss? To WKU on Feb. 25, 2016.

It’ll take a monumental effort from the Tops to pull off another win in the ‘Boro.

“Our team’s good,” Davis said. “You get over 9,000 people to watch our team play, we get really, really good.”

Western Kentucky hasn’t won at least eight road games (the Tops are sitting at 7 right now) in a single season since 2007-08 when it won 10. It has also dropped 12 of 14 to its chief rival since 2010 in a series it had historically dominated from 1931 until then.

Stansbury’s favorite mantra of the next game of the year being the biggest one actually holds some weight this week thanks to a 22-point win over ODU on Saturday. And there’s no question pulling off the upset Thursday would equate to the biggest victory of the Stansbury Era.

“We did what we were supposed to do (Saturday). We’re all excited about the win. We should be,” he said. “But, get on to the next one. We did what we’re supposed to do, all that does, this time of year, it magnifies the next one.

“I feel really good about (my team). But it’s not how I feel, it’s how they feel. They feel really good about each other. And this is the time of year you do it right now.”


Western Kentucky senior forward Justin Johnson on proposing to his girlfriend before the start of Saturday’s game against Old Dominion: “I told my grandpa I was gonna do it and he said, ‘What if she says no? I hope you’re able to focus on the game.’ ”


Fifteen years ago this month the band Dragonforce released their debut album Valley of the Damned. I've been fortunate enough to see these speed-metal masters live. You may recognize them from the video game Guitar Hero. Or from Old Dominion's pep band (shoutout to you all) covering them through the years.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop