HIstory suggests Tops will soon return to NCAAs

It took 11 years for Western Kentucky to get back to the men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament in 2023-24, but if history is any indicator it won’t take nearly that long for the Hilltoppers to make their next appearance.

To be sure, WKU’s NCAA Tournament trips have come in bunches, and coaching changes have rarely been a negative factor.

Western went to its first NCAA Tournament in 1940, losing 30-29 to Duquesne. For the next 20 years, the Hllltoppers became a national power by virtue of their many appearances in the National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York — coach Ed Diddle becoming a popular figure as he twirled his famous red towel.

It wasn’t until 1960, however, that Diddle’s Western team returned to the NCAAs. Western lost to top-ranked and eventual NCAA champion Ohio State 98-79, before beating Ohio University 97-87 in the Mideast Regional consolation game.

As co-champion of the Ohio Valley Conference, Western nearly went again in 1961, but lost an OVC playoff game to Morehead State (80-72 OT).

The following season, powered by All-American Bobby Rascoe, Western was back in the NCAAs, but would once again have to face top-ranked Ohio State. The Buckeyes prevailed 93-73, and then the Hilltoppers fell to Butler 87-86 in the consolation game.

Western returned to the NCAA Tournament in 1966 with one of its best teams. The 10th-ranked Hilltoppers walloped No. 4 Loyola of Chicago 105-86 in an opening round game.

Then, Western lost 80-79 to Michigan, when Greg Smith was whistled for fouling Michigan All-American Cazzie Russell on a jump ball in one of the most controversial calls in NCAA history by referee Steve Honzo. Russell sank two free throws in the final seconds to turn a one-point deficit into a one-point lead, and the Wolverines went on to play Kentucky’s Rupp’s Runts in the Mideast Regional finals.

Western beat Dayton 82-68 in the regional third-place game.

WKU was back in the Big Dance the following season, after winning 21 straight games and climbing to No. 3 in the national polls — but more NCAA heartbreak awaited. Hilltopper All-American Clem Haskins suffered a broken wrist in a late-season game against Murray State, and the team was never the same thereafter. Facing Dayton in the NCAA first round, the Hilltoppers dropped a heartbreaking 69-67 decision in overtime on a jump shot by the Flyers’ Bob Hooper in the waning moments.

Still, it was back-to-back trips to the Big Dance for coach John Oldham’s Hilltoppers, and they would soon turn the trick again.

In 1970, Western was a Top-20 team facing Artis Gilmore-led Jacksonville in the first round. The Dolphins had their way with WKU, 109-96, and went on to finish as national runner-up to UCLA.

The No. 7 Hilltoppers, led by All-American Jim McDaniels, got revenge and then some in 1971, beating Jacksonville in the regular season at Louisville, then rallying from an 18-point deficit to edge the Dolphins 74-72 on a trick-play layup by Clarence Glover in the final seconds.

That led to one of WKU’s most prized victories — a 107-83 rout of Kentucky in the first meeting between the two programs. Western then beat Ohio State 81-78 in overtime to reach the Final Four. In the national semifinals, WKU fell to Villanova 92-89 in double overtime, before edging Kansas 77-75 for third place.

Oldham retired after the big run in 1971 and was replaced by assistant Jim Richards, who directed the Hilltoppers to NCAA trips in 1976 (a 79-60 loss to Marquette) and 1978, when WKU upset No 18 Syracuse 87-86 in overtime, before falling to Magic Johnson and No. 4 Michigan State 90-69.

Richards retired after that season and was replaced by Gene Keady, whose first Western team was robbed in the OVC Tournament championship game against Eastern Kentucky in Richmond. WKU was leading 77-76 when time expired. Three-and-a-half seconds after the final horn (which could not be heard by officials), a foul was whistled on WKU, and, after a lengthy discussion at the scorer’s table, EKU’s Dave Tierney was awarded two free throws. He made both, and the Colonels went to the NCAAs instead of the incensed Hilltoppers.

Keady’s second Western team did make the NCAA Tournament in 1980, and played a first-round game in E.A. Diddle Arena against Virginia Tech — but the Tops blew a golden opportunity to play Indiana in the second round. WKU led the Hokies 48-30 at halftime, but Virginia Tech roared from behind to win 89-85 in overtime.

Haskins took over the helm from Keady the following season and reached the NCAA Tournament in his first season, but WKU was rocked by UAB, 93-68. Haskins and Co. didn’t go to the NCAAs again until 1986, beating Nebraska (67-59) before falling to Kentucky (71-64).

Murray Arnold replaced Haskins, who took the Minnesota job, and led WKU back to the NCAA Tournament in 1987, beating West Virginia (64-62) before falling to No. 10 Syracuse (104-86).

Ralph Willard coached 20th-ranked WKU into the 1993 NCAA Sweet 16 with victories over Memphis State (55-52) and No. 6 Seton Hall (72-68), before losing to No. 11 Florida State (81-78 OT). He took WKU back to the Big Dance the following season, losing to No. 20 Texas (91-77).

Willard departed for Pittsburgh and was succeeded by Matt Kilcullen, who led No. 21 Western back to the NCAAs in 1995, when they rallied to beat Michigan (82-76 OT) before falling to No. 5 Kansas (75-70).

Dennis Felton directed WKU to three consecutive NCAAs (2001-03), but lost in the first round each time. Then, he left for Georgia.

Darrin Horn led WKU to the 2008 Sweet 16, beating Drake 101-99 on Ty Rogers’ epic 27-footer at the buzzer, and San Diego (72-63), before losing to No. 3 UCLA (88-78).

After Horn left for South Carolina, Ken McDonald took WKU back to the NCAAs in 2009. The Hilltoppers beat Illinois (76-72) before narrowly falling to No. 10 Gonzaga (83-81).

WKU returned to the NCAAs in 2012, when Ray Harper’s Hilltoppers won four games in four days to claim the Sun Belt Conference Tournament title. They beat Mississippi Valley State in the biggest last-five-minutes comeback in tournament history (59-58), before falling to eventual champion Kentucky (81-66).

Harper’s 2013 team also won four games in four days at the SBC Tournament to secure a bid — falling to No. 3 Kansas (64-57) in the opening round.

This past season, under Steve Lutz, WKU won its first Conference USA title, then lost to Marquette 87-69 in the first round. Lutz left for Oklahoma State shortly thereafter, and assistant Hank Plona was named to replace him.

History suggests it won’t take Plona long to return the Hilltoppers to the Big Dance.