Bowling Green — This season brought optimism, injuries, losing streaks and even a resurrection to the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.
But once Saturday arrives, none of those matter anymore.
After a wildly fluctuating regular season, the Hilltoppers stand four wins away from a third consecutive Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship and the third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament an SBC title carries.
The journey begins Saturday in Hot Springs, Ark., when fourth-seeded WKU meets No. 13 New Orleans at 6:45 p.m. in the tournament's first round.
"We do have some (experienced players) coming back that's been through this, and I'm excited about that," WKU Coach Ken McDonald said. "We've given ourselves the opportunity to play some of the best teams in the country, so I know we're seasoned and I know we've been around and that this team has seen a lot of ups and downs this season.
"We've been through some tough times, we've been through some good times. And you know you're about to go into the tournament with guys that have been tested. It's exciting."
After suffering through a five-game losing streak in January, the Hilltoppers (19-12) righted the ship and played their best basketball at the end of the regular season. WKU closed the campaign on a six-game winning streak and nearly fought all the way back to earn a first-round bye for the SBC tournament.
The bye didn't materialize, but WKU appears to have a favorable draw this weekend.
The Hilltoppers went 9-1 in the regular season against the six other teams on their side of the bracket.
The Hilltoppers beat New Orleans once (75-56 on Jan. 30), Arkansas State twice (79-68 on Feb. 11 and 78-76 in overtime on Feb. 20), Arkansas-Little Rock once (67-46 on Feb. 13) and split against Troy (lost 77-69 on Jan. 21 and won 87-69 on Feb. 6).
The bottom half of the bracket pits No. 6 Denver against No. 11 Florida International and No. 7 Louisiana-Lafayette against No. 10 Louisiana-Monroe in the first round.
Even without the coveted first-round bye, the Hilltoppers will avoid Middle Tennessee and North Texas — two teams WKU is 0-3 against this year — until a potential championship game matchup March 9.
Still, McDonald said overanalyzing the draw is pointless.
"We're going to treat each game individually, we're not even going to talk about other matchups," he said. "There's no need to do that in tournament play, because you lose, and you go home."
Meanwhile, the fact WKU has won six straight and eight of its past 10 has the Hilltoppers feeling pretty good about themselves as the second season begins.
"We're liking each other. The chemistry on the court is great right now," McDonald said.