Game 063: Arkansas-Little Rock 55, at Western Kentucky 53Thursday, February 17, 2005
E.A. Diddle Arena - Bowling Green, KY
With no teams in the major pro leagues and no meaningful college football of any kind, it may be the one state in the union where residents are free to obsess over college basketball without any distractions whatsoever. Unique in its own right, Kentucky always casts its eight electoral votes for hoops.
"The state of the roundball union in Bluegrass Country is as healthy as ever!" former Detroit-Mercy
coach and current power-conference cheerleader Dick Vitale recently effused
. "Wouldn't it be something if these teams hook up come NCAA Tournament time?"These teams,
of course, refer to those that represent the state's two major colleges: the University of Kentucky
and the University of Louisville
. They're not so much basketball teams as they are philosophies, religions, completely-formed ways of living that are completely incompatible with one another. Shortly after exiting the womb, all Kentuckians are forced to choose sides - hey baby, are you a Wildcat or a Cardinal?
Most times, there's no free will involved - who you're with is usually based on geography. A division line cuts a violent lengthwise swath across the bumpy-topped landmass, Kentucky blue below and Louisville red above, nothing in between. Because of their historical success, UK currently enjoys an approximate 75-25% overall majority in the state, which roughly matches their 7-2 edge in national championships. Don't it turn a red state blue.
But left of center, a twisting spur away from Interstate 65, there's a little city with an underwear factory
called Bowling Green. In Bowling Green, you walk your own line
. Here, you'll see fewer people in the streets wearing UK and U of L gear than anywhere else in Kentucky. Sure, they do
wear red, but it's a few Pantone shades away from Louisville cardinal. It's a bright crimson hue that identifies them as fans of the Western Kentucky
Western Kentucky spent most of the 20th Century in the Ohio Valley and currently plays their games in the backwater Sun Belt, but most of their fans bristle at the term "mid-major." They'll point to a rich and storied past that's anything but humble: WKU has four Final Four appearances (three are in the NIT, back when it was the Tournament of kings), four Sweet Sixteen trips, and 19 overall NCAA Tournament bids - that includes three straight from 2001-03. Having a solid historical grounding keeps folks from turning to one of the two available "dark sides."
"At Morehead State
and Murray State
, you'll see people who are Kentucky or Louisville fans first," says lifelong Tops fan and basketblogger
Cortney Basham. "There's a guy on one of their boards with the username 'UKRules', and the administrator lets him post. We'd never stand for that around here."
Binding the community of Topper fans together is a series of easily-graspable traditions. There was this coach named E.A. Diddle, you see - back in the 1940's, kids were stealing towels from the gym so he had them dyed red
to identify them as P.E. department property. When Jerry Tarkanian was knee-high to a stump, Diddle chewed and waved and cried into his towel - soon the students took up the practice themselves. Now the crimson cloths (available for $2.25 at the school bookstore) have the fight song printed on them so you can follow along. Even the school logo is waving a red towel.
Basham, a young mild-mannered Western instructor, teaches me the correct WKU towel-waving method. "Most people flap it around with the wrist," he says. "But I like to really work it around with the elbow. Some even like to get the whole arm into it. In tight spaces, however, that can get dangerous."
And then there's The Western Spirit, embodied and typified by Big Red
, a large crimson blob that SportsCenter
introduced to the nation.
"Not everyone around here loves Big Red, mostly because he's gotten so damn popular
," a wild and crazy shaven-headed dude in a throwback Hilltoppers warmup tells me. He's known in the Hilltopper Haven
fan community simply as Dahbeed. "But they're just drinking Haterade. I look at the kids, he makes them so happy. The kids love
Said blob leads the white-jerseyed team out onto the floor, as a frothy towel-waving Diddle Arena crowd welcomes them. For forty minutes, they play the visiting Arkansas-Little Rock
Trojans tight; control of the tough physical battle seesaws, neither squad gaining much more than a three or four point edge. Western has one run in them, and it comes midway through the second half - they lead 49-42 with eight minutes to go.
But then the Hilltoppers start firing blanks. The Little Rock defense, solid throughout, locks down the Toppers' perimeter shooters and denies them their passing lanes. Five minutes on, the lead has disappeared and the match is tied at 49. "They're going to lose this game," Dahbeed says, his eyes bulging. "I can feel it. They're going to lose."
A child of eleven or twelve wheels around, his eyes innocent and saucer-like. "Don't say that," he pleads. "Don't say that!
But the writing is on the wall. Western Kentucky scores but four more points, and the Trojans take the lead with four seconds left with a savage and screaming dunk by muscular forward Darius Eason. The home team gets one final chance as time slips away, as a freshman thoroughbred named Courtney Lee lets it fly from the corner. But like ten of his other twelve shots on the night, it is not converted. The visiting black-clad players dance around center court and cackle maniacally; they chant that Diddle Arena, despite all appearances to the contrary, is their house.
"That hurt," Cortney says solemnly while walking away from the arena. He broods about the loss for hours after the final buzzer. He mutters about how the Trojans hold the tie with WKU atop the Sun Belt East division, and a tiebreaker as well with the season sweep. It's etched in his face - real power-conference-sized pain. "That was bad."
A major reason why Western Kentucky is refused major national respect is due to their few shots at the two big schools - they are regularly denied chances to make their case to the Bluegrass State on the court. They hold a 38-33 series lead over Louisville
, but most of those games were contested before 1950. The Toppers last beat the Cardinals in 2000, a 68-65 win keyed by a seven-foot mobile behemoth named Chris Marcus.
And a matchup between Western Kentucky and Big Blue is rarer than a third podium being brought onto the stage for a presidential debate. Every towel-waver can relate the story of the first-ever matchup between WKU and UK, a 1971 NCAA Tournament game
in which the Hilltoppers won 107-83 on their way to the Final Four. They met again in the 1986 Tournament and twice during Rick Pitino's short-lived open-door scheduling policy in the early Nineties. All were Wildcat victories.
Western's biggest victory so far this century occurred at the 2001-02 NABC Classic, held at Rupp Arena. Led by a double-double by the aforementioned Mr. Marcus, the Toppers prevailed 64-52 to earn their second win in that short five-game series.
"Oh, I was there in the rafters of Rupp when the Tops took down UK," Cortney recalls wistfully. "Few people really know how good that team could have been. Marcus' bad foot got worse as he practiced leading up to the NCAA tourney... we got a 9 seed and tanked against Stanford. We got down 18, pulled to within 1, and were just gassed. Stanford won going away."
Their history, traditions and rabid fan base may be second-to-few, but WKU is a classic mid-major program. They are a proud, scrappy underdog bunch playing a fathom or two under the national radar. But every so often, they peek above the horizon line and give people reason to believe that there are more than two historical powerhouses of Kentucky hoops.
So if you'd prefer, think of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers not as a mid-major basketball squad, but as a leading third-party candidate. They may not win any statewide elections, but at least they've got one county's votes all locked up.Photo Gallery