Darkest horse to open tourney

DAYTON, Ohio — A losing record. Two coaches in three months. A fan base so disinterested that 2,000 showed up for a dollar-ticket promotion, one that ended with the most bizarre loss of all.

Western Kentucky has spent an entire season redefining the long shot.

The Hilltoppers (15-18) pulled off one of the most remarkable turnarounds, going from a down-and-out team to one that's ready to open the NCAA Tournament tonight against Mississippi Valley State.

"A lot of people are underestimating us," freshman guard Derrick Gordon said, and with good reason: They've spent most of the season playing down to the lowest estimates.

A team featuring seven freshmen lost 11 of its first 16 games. The low point came Jan. 5, when Louisiana-Lafayette got six players on the floor for the winning shot in a 72-70 overtime victory.

That wasn't even the most embarrassing thing about that game. The school offered $1 tickets to lure back fans, and only 2,137 decided the Hilltoppers were worth a buck.

The next day, coach Ken McDonald was fired, replaced by assistant Ray Harper. The Hilltoppers responded by losing their next three games.

"I'm pretty sure everybody's minds were like going crazy," senior guard Kahlil McDonald said. "But it shows how tough we are because we got through it and we got a conference championship. And now we're here."

Harper emphasized improvement each day, and got it. The Hilltoppers toughened on defense, won a few games, gained confidence and won their last six games, including four in four days at the Sun Belt tournament.

"They've learned some lessons that will carry them," Harper said. "It's going to help them through life, that there will be tough days, but you must stay and believe."

BETTING ODDS: Las Vegas oddsmaker Mike Colbert of Cantor Gaming said Kentucky is a 5-2 favorite to win the championship. No. 2 seed Ohio State is 6-1.

ACADEMICS: The graduation rate disparity between African-American and white players at schools in this year's NCAA Tournament decreased slightly after growing 10 percent over the previous three years, according to an annual report by the UCF Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

AP POLL: Kentucky and Syracuse were Nos. 1 and 2 for a seventh straight week in the season's final poll. FSU finished 10th and Florida 25th.

Around the nation

SEC AWARDS: Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis was a unanimous choice for player of the year and newcomer of the year, and John Calipari took the coaching honor in voting by the Associated Press. Florida had two players on the second team, guards Kenny Boynton and Bradley Beal.

CHARITY TOURNEY: FSU, Notre Dame, BYU and Saint Joseph's were selected as the host schools for next season's Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, which will play its championship at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Nov. 16-17.

GA. TECH: Student manager London Warren was dismissed, and the status of player Glen Rice Jr. is being reviewed after a shooting outside an Atlanta nightclub Thursday, shortly before the ACC tournament. No one was injured; a passenger in their vehicle said a gun went off accidentally. Rice has been suspended since February.

WOMEN: Indiana fired coach Felisha Legette-Jack after six seasons. … Joli Robinson is out as North Carolina Central coach after 16 seasons.

Darkest horse to open tourney 03/12/12 [Last modified: Monday, March 12, 2012 11:02pm]

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