KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For Western Kentucky, the time is now.
If the Hilltoppers (20-15) are to make history by becoming the first 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, they must put together the perfect game at 8:50 p.m. tonight against mighty Kansas.
The Jayhawks (29-5) are heavy favorites to dispose of WKU tonight at the Sprint Center – which is 40 miles from the KU campus – and are among the favorites to win the national championship. They'll also have more than 18,000 fans on their side when the ball is tipped tonight in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
"We just believe," WKU senior Jamal Crook said. "That's the main thing. We have faith – put a lot of faith in God. I mean, there's going to be times when things aren't going your way. That's where the belief comes in."
The Tops had a shot at a No. 1 seed last year, losing to eventual national champion Kentucky in Louisville two days after beating Mississippi Valley State in Dayton, Ohio.
This scenario, however, is much different. Western Kentucky has had more than four days to prepare for KU and can draw from the experience of last season's wild ride.
"I definitely try to tell some of the younger guys about it, the guys that haven't been there, haven't been on this stage before," WKU sophomore George Fant said. "I mean, it's hard to tell them not to be nervous. I'll tell you right now, I'll be nervous when we first get out there.
"I'll just try to explain to them, it's going to be a hard game, physical, won't get a lot of calls. You got to go out there and play, play through things."
Kansas, the champion of the Big 12 Conference, has size, quickness and one of the better defenses in the nation.
Center Jeff Withey is a 7-foot senior who averages 13.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. He has 14 more blocks this season by himself than WKU's team combined.
Freshman guard Ben McLemore scores 16.4 per game. Senior guard Travis Releford is a tenacious defensive specialist and senior forward Kevin Young (6-8, 190) will be a matchup problem for WKU.
Kansas has also forced 437 turnovers this season while WKU has thrown it away 487 times.
The Jayhawks know all this, yet said all the right things Thursday before taking the Sprint Center court for its scheduled open practice in front of a few thousand KU fans.
"For us to be able to win and get out on a lead, we definitely have to do the small things, like rebound," Withey said. "And defense is really important this time of the year. We know that they (WKU) have two really good scorers. They like to be on the same side. The whole team kind of runs around them.
"We're looking forward to the challenge. It's going to be a fun game. We know what we have to do. I can't tell all our secrets."
Western Kentucky coach Ray Harper is not the type of coach to drum up big speeches about major upsets or about the historical implications a WKU win might incur. Instead, he has approached this week with the same straight-forward mindset that got his team into the party in the first place.
"Just like if we were a No. 1 seed," he quipped Thursday when asked how he prepared his squad for being a 16 seed. "They're going to throw it up tomorrow night and hopefully we'll be ready to play.
"Like I said, we're not concerned about the seed or those type of things. We're excited to still be playing after some of the adversity and things we had to overcome this season."
Harper and his Tops were the last team to take the floor for open practice Thursday night and appear to be an afterthought among the seven other programs – Mississippi, Wisconsin, Villanova, North Carolina, Kansas State, LaSalle and KU – in KC for the weekend.
A crowd of maybe 100 people stuck around to watch WKU go through shooting drills. Despite being on a four-game winning streak, winning consecutive Sun Belt Conference titles and coming out victorious in seven of their last eight overall, there aren't a lot of people who believe in the team from "little Bowling Green," as Fant put it.
"I think the biggest thing is we continue to compete, we continue to believe," Harper said. "Played pretty good basketball down the stretch. You know, we'll see what happens (tonight)."