When Mississippi Valley State faces Western Kentucky Tuesday in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament in Dayton they will be looking at a mirror image of themselves.
The Hilltoppers (15-18), who won the Sun Belt tournament to secure its automatic bid into the field of 68, have a lot in common with the Delta Devils.
MVSU (21-12) started the regular season 1-11. Western Kentucky started its season 5-11 and fired then head coach Ken McDonald Jan. 5.
Western Kentucky and Mississippi Valley did share non-conference wins over Ohio Valley runner-up Tennessee State, though.
Mississippi Valley State was able to bounce back from their rocky start and win 17 of their next 18 games (all in Southwestern Athletic Conference play) in addition to capturing the regular season and conference tournament crowns.
Under interim head coach Ray Harper WKU won their last two regular season games, and then four more on four consecutive days to take the Sun Belt title. During the improbable run, the Hilltoppers knocked off Eastern Division champion Middle Tennessee State and then overcame a double-digit second-half hole to stun North Texas in the Sun Belt final.
Western Kentucky hasn’t lost since dropping a 61-66 decision to South Alabama Feb. 18.
WKU is the first team to make the tournament field with a losing record since Coppin State of the Mid Eastern Athletic Conference pulled off the feat in 2008. Ironically, that was the last time MVSU made the NCAAs.
“They had a magical run in their tournament,” head coach Sean Woods told the Clarion-Ledger after learning Western Kentucky would be the opponent.
That run coincided with improved production from untested, fresh-faced wide-eyed contributors. A far cry from the veteran-laden rosters that upset tournament regulars like Illinois and Drake just a few short years ago.
WKU has seven freshmen on its roster — one of the youngest teams in the entire tournament — is led by a pair of them. Derrick Gordon, a freshman guard from Plainfield, N.J., leads the team in points per game (11.8), rebounds (6.8) and is second on the team in assists (2.1). Swingman George Fant is second on the team in scoring (10.3) rebounds (6.0) and shoots 47.9 percent from the field.
“We were a team that really had to become a tougher basketball team,” Harper said. “I thought we got better each day. We got tougher and that’s why we’re still playing.”
The winner will take on No.1 overall seed Kentucky in Louisville.