Expectations weren't real high at Western Kentucky last fall.
After leading the Hilltoppers to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16, Coach Darrin Horn moved to South Carolina and guard Courtney Lee to the NBA as Orlando's first-round draft choice.
"Nobody expected much of us this year," said rookie head coach Ken McDonald, 39, who left an assistant's job at Texas. "We've achieved all of our goals."
A pre-season pick to finish third in the Sun Belt's East Division, the Hilltoppers instead won the league's regular-season and conference tournament title. They are seeded 12th in the South regional and provide the opposition for No. 5 Illinois on Thursday night in Portland, Ore.
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McDonald performed a quick retooling job that saw the Hilltoppers take down Louisville, the Midwest's No. 1 seed, in November.
McDonald looked at his roster, saw strength in the backcourt and anointed A.J. Slaughter and Orlando Mendez-Valdez as his leaders.
"I really fell in love with Orlando over the course of the first month or so," McDonald said. "I liked his attitude and toughness. He had played some point, but I put him at (shooting guard). I wanted him to play a scoring role."
In his first year as a starter Mendez-Valdez, a 6-foot-1-inch senior, succeeded Lee as conference player of the year, averaging 14.0 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game. Slaughter, a 6-3 junior who started seven games last season, is the Hilltoppers' leading scorer at 15.8 points per game.
"We were going to establish ourselves as a guard-oriented team, and they were going to have to run the team," McDonald said. "We didn't have a lot of production back offensively, so we had to make sure the right guys had the ball in their hands."
Western Kentucky has had a lot of right guys over the years. This is the Hilltoppers' 21st NCAA berth, their second in a row and their fifth this decade — they also went in 2001, 2002 and 2003 under coach Dennis Felton.
Clem Haskins was the star of the 1966 and 1967 NCAA teams. Illinois Coach Bruce Weber started his coaching career there as a Gene Keady assistant in 1980.
In 1971, at a time when the national title was all but conceded to UCLA annually, the Hilltoppers finished third with forward Jim McDaniels before the NCAA took the trophy away when it was learned McDaniels had signed a professional contract and had been paid during the 1970-71 season.
With 39 20-victory seasons, WKU trails only North Carolina and Kentucky at 53, UCLA 45, Duke 45 and Louisville 42.
McDonald, who was a Hilltopper assistant before going to Texas, is passing down the tradition to his players.
"We try our best almost daily to talk about it," McDonald said "Some of the accolades this program has are really incredible.
"I talked about nothing but dominating our conference, winning our conference, getting to the NCAA. That's the bar we've set."