Men's Basketball

Toppers thrilled to face Illinois

After a week of speculation, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers got what they figured — a No. 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

That was based on last year, according to senior guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez, when the Toppers upset fifth-seeded Drake on their way to a Sweet 16 finish.

Illinois is the No. 5 seed and will be Western's opponent in the first round of the South Regional on Thursday in Portland, Ore.

A November victory over NCAA top seed Louisville (68-54 in Nashville) helped Western get another 12 seed, added Mendez-Valdez, the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year.

Western Kentucky Roster | Schedule | Stats

Illinois Roster | Schedule | Stats

"We had some losses, but no complaints (with the pairings)," he said, "We're excited to get the opportunity to play again."

Mendez-Valdez said the Toppers recognized the departure of stars Courtney Lee and Tyrone Brazelton from last season's NCAA team.

"We lost them," he said, "so others had to pick up the slack. We've done a good job working together."

Mendez-Valdez doesn't mind a trip to the Northwest.

"I've never been there, so it's another place to visit," he said.

The Western-Illinois winner will face the Gonzaga- Akron winner on Saturday.

For now, Western's first-year coach, Ken McDonald, is happy to be playing Illinois.

"They had a great year in the Big Ten (reaching the tournament semifinals), and I have a lot of respect for their program," McDonald said.

The Hilltoppers are ranked 43rd in the Ratings Percentage Index with a No. 56 non-conference strength of schedule. Western is 24-8 and on a season-best seven-game winning streak.

That includes the three victories to win the Sun Belt tourney and an automatic bid for a 21st appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

McDonald's first team has impressed him.

"It's been a great ride," he said. "The players answered the bell every step. A lot of people didn't think we'd finish in the top half of the league, yet we won the conference outright.

"Our attitude was that we had to win (the Sun Belt tourney)," he added. The conference recently has been limited to one team in the Big Dance.

Western lost a big lead against South Alabama, trailing 43-39 with 12:46 left. The Toppers went on a 14-3 run and led 53-46 with seven minutes left.

"Our older guys took over," McDonald said. "They wanted the ball, and they made the plays."