The first conference tournament to get turned upside-down this year was the Sun Belt, which saw three of the top four seeds – including the top two seeds – lose in the quarterfinals. The fun didn’t stop on Monday, as the remaining favorite, No. 3 seed Denver, was toppled by No. 7 Western Kentucky. On the other side of the bracket, No. 5 seed North Texas will head to the title game for the third straight season after beating No. 9 Arkansas State.
North Texas won the first meeting between the two teams, in mid-January. In that game, the Mean Green shot better than 56 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range en route to a 17-point win.
Western Kentucky is a very different team than it was back then, as Ray Harper took over as the head coach and completely turned around the Hilltoppers’ season. They knocked off regular-season champion Middle Tennessee in the season finale and also beat the top tournament contenders in the conference tournament. During their recent five-game winning streak, the Hilltoppers are playing far better offensively and showing more consistency on the defensive end.
Plenty of impressive freshmen will be on display Tuesday night in Hot Springs, Ark. North Texas’ Tony Mitchell is one of the top newcomers in the country, capable of dominating at both ends of the floor. Western Kentucky counters with Derrick Gordon and George Fant.
North Texas has been far more balanced lately, with Alzee Williams, Jacob Holmen and Roger Franklin all picking up the slack with Mitchell struggling in the postseason. If Mitchell returns to the form he showed in the regular season, Western Kentucky could have trouble.
The winner of this game will likely be the lowest-rated team in the field, meaning the winner could end up in Dayton for the First Four.
-- Jeff Borzello