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The Play-In Game Isn’t Totally Bad – From the Bird’s Nest

sunbeltsports.org

Do you know how hard it is in this day and age to record a sporting event and not find out the result before you watch it?

I actually pulled it off last night.

Broadcasting the Cajuns’ game against Houston at “Tigue” Moore Field (good guys win 3-1) I didn’t set up my computer.  Or my twitter account.  Didn’t check email.  Ignored all texts.  Informed the press box personnel.

And, by golly, it worked.

I got home and watched the game.  And, I knew the scenario.

The winner was likely going to an opening round game.  We call it, incorrectly, the “play-in” game.  These teams are in the tournament.  They aren’t playing to get into it.

But there was a chance if North Texas won, they’d just be a sixteen seed and avoid that game in Dayton.  Some even suggested they might be a 15, although I wasn’t buying that.

For Western Kentucky, it was cut and dried.  Win.  Go to Dayton.  Play Tuesday.

And, to the Toppers’ credit, they got it done.  WKU came back from a double digit deficit with 12 minutes to go and won 74-70.  I would have thought a game in the 70s would have favored North Texas.

WKU has been a good story this year.  After firing Ken McDonald the day after the “sixth man” loss to Louisiana, Ray Harper was named the interim and it took a while for the Toppers to really get it together.  But they won down the stretch and that final regular season win over Middle Tennessee was a precursor to what was to come.  They survived a dangerous FIU team.  They came from 13 down to beat UALR.  They fought tooth and nail with Denver and got it done.  And, last night, amazingly, they showed the better poise down the stretch and beat a team playing in its third straight final.

And, while everyone will talk about the freshmen on this team (George Fant had a great tournament and Derrick Gordon was outstanding against UALR), it was a couple of upperclassmen who got the Toppers to this unlikely position.  Khalil McDonald hit one clutch shot after another during the tournament.  If he doesn’t hit two huge triples in the opening game, WKU would have lost to FIU and we wouldn’t be having this discussion.  He hit big shots in all four games.  He’s the only senior on this squad, but really proved his value over this four day period.

And, what about Teeng Akol?  A gangly player who took up space on the court a year ago, he outplayed outstanding freshman Tony Mitchell.  Akol scored.  Akol rebounded.  Akol blocked shots.  The Sudan native played easily the best game of his career.  His improvement from last year, heck, his improvement over the last two months has been nothing short of amazing.

So, look at the freshmen for the future.  But the upperclassmen led this team.

So now, the Hilltoppers will be in the opening round in Dayton on Tuesday.  They’ll be pitted against another low-rated team, perhaps the champion of the SWAC or MEAC.  And, if they win, it’s a quick turnaround to the next site where they will play a #1 seed.

And, you know, with the committee’s sense of humor, the chances of it being Kentucky are pretty good.

But here’s the good news for everyone in the league.

When you go to the tournament, you go to the tournament.  And, when you win, you get an extra share even if it’s an opening round win.  The league hasn’t had two shares since WKU won its first game in the now-departed McDonald’s first year.

The moral of the story?  If you’re going to be a sixteen seed, be one of the worst (according to the RPI and record).  Because if you win, it means more money for you and your league.

And, you might get to play someone you really hate in the next round.

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