The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils will kick off this year's NCAA Tournament as the two meet in the first round at the University of Dayton Arena before a presidential audience.
The winner of this matchup between these two 16th-seeded squads advances to face the tournament's top overall seed, Kentucky, in the second round on Thursday.
Western Kentucky is a part of this year's Big Dance after an unexpected run through the 2012 Sun Belt Conference Tournament, earning the automatic. The season which looked to be heading for a disappointing finish, hit its low when coach Ken McDonald was fired after a 5-11 start. McDonald had led the team to two NCAA Tournaments, including a magical Sweet 16 run in the past four seasons. However, interim coach Ray Harper took over on Jan 12. and accumulated a 10-6 record, which includes the four-game run through the SBC Tournament as a seven-seed.
MVSU's appearance in the NCAA Tournament is much more expected. The Delta Devils dominated their Southwestern Athletic Conference schedule, which including winning 17 in a row on their way to a regular season title. MVSU narrowly escaped a couple of upsets in the SWAC Tournament, but punched its ticket on Saturday with a 71-69 victory over the second-seed, Texas Southern. The Delta Devils played 10 power conference programs in their non-conference slate, but went 0-10 against those schools. Coach Sean Woods has not led MVSU to the NCAA Tournament as a coach, but he gained invaluable experience during his playing days at Kentucky. Woods had the credit of an Elite Eight game- winning shot taken away from him by Christian Laettner's unforgettable turnaround. If Woods leads his team to the second round, he will get a chance to upset his alma mater.
The Delta Devils and Hilltoppers have met three times before, and WKU has won all three encounters. WKU defeated MVSU on Dec. 18, 1997 the last time the programs met.
WKU is riding a six-game winning streak into this one, but none of the victories have been by more than six points. WKU can not afford to get into a shootout with MVSU, as it finished last in the Sun Belt Conference in three- point percentage. The scrappy Hilltoppers had to overcome a two-point halftime deficit in the SBC Tournament championship game to punch their ticket. Forward Teeng Akol came up big in the championship with 23 points and four blocks, but he has not tallied that many points in his previous three games. George Fant is capable of stepping up, as he showed in the SBC Semifinals with 19 points, and Derrick Gordon's team leading scoring and rebounding averages make him a player to watch as well.
During their run through the SWAC, the Delta Devils outscored their conference rivals by 10.4 ppg. MVSU showed it is not trigger happy from three-point range by making 32.8 percent of its 755 shots from distance. Woods had to be pleased that despite his team's very difficult non-conference schedule, the team managed to slightly outrebound its opponents for the season. Senior center Paul Crosby won the SWAC Player of the Year for his efforts inside. He led the team in rebounding 14 times and finished the season with team-high averages of 13.6 points and 7.4 boards per game. Terrence Joyner, Cor-J Cox, and Kevin Burwell are all quite important to the Delta Devils' balanced attack as well.