Western Kentucky is probably bound for another opening round game in Dayton, Ohio after a surprise Sun Belt tourney title. (AP/Danny Johnston)
Who needs the regular season? Certainly not Ray Harper and his Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, who ripped off another four-wins-in-four-days run to make it back-to-back Sun Belt tournament titles and NCAA tournament bids. WKU beat Florida International, 65-63, to lock up the bid.
As unlikely as this year's championship was -- Western Kentucky finished at .500 in the Sun Belt's 20-game double round-robin -- it was a walk in the park compared to last year's run. At this point last season, Harper, who had taken over the team midseason after the January firing of Ken McDonald, was leading his then 12-18 team to four straight Sun Belt tourney victories. They also beat Mississippi Valley State in the First Four before falling to Kentucky.
This year, WKU "only" had to beat the second- and third-best teams (by record) in order to get to the title game, and then avoided seeing dominant Middle Tennessee State, thanks to a semifinal upset at the hands of FIU. They cashed in the chance and improved to 8-0 in the Sun Belt's postseason under Harper after the Toppers went 17-19 in the last two regular seasons.
With an RPI of 155, the Hilltoppers may once again be headed to Dayton a week from tomorrow or Wednesday, but hey, it worked for them last season, right?
Elsewhere in auto-bid land...
- Davidson escaped the clutches of the Small-Conference Entertainment Complex, nailing down another Southern Conference auto-bid with a comprehensive rout of rival College of Charleston. With the Cougars leaving the league now for the Colonial, the Wildcats may rule this joint for the foreseeable future.
- James Madison wasn't a name that was bandied about much as a potential winner of the wide-open Colonial tournament, but that they did, beating top-seeded Northeastern in the final to nail down a surprise place in the field of 68.
- In the second late game involving Gaels tonight, it went a bit better for that nickname as Iona beat local rival Manhattan to return to the NCAAs. Last season, the Gaels were one of the most talked-about at-large inclusions. This time, they grabbed the MAAC's auto bid and will wait only on seeding.In related news, this contest featured one of the all-time great backdoor covers. Iona led by eight points when Manhattan made a three-pointer in the final seconds and then, when Iona was adjudged to have left its bench a fraction of a second before the buzzer, the Gaels were hit with a technical foul. Manhattan made both free throws to lose by three. The line? Iona -4.
In sum, the bottom of the bracket has already seen numerous upsets in the small-conference tournaments, which makes all the speculative buzz about massive first-round shockers seem even more specious. This isn't a high-quality field at the bottom at the moment. We'll see how the rest of this week goes.