Travis Hudson has successfully prepared for a conference tournament a time or two in his 27-year career as Western Kentucky’s coach, and not much will be different heading into this year’s event.

The Hilltoppers have won six of a possible seven Conference USA Tournament titles since joining the league and enter this year’s event – which begins Friday in Norfolk, Va. – as the favorite to do it again.

“It’s very similar. I keep the same approach every single year,” Hudson said. “You hear me talk about how the hardest thing to do is win a regular-season championship, and the reason I say that is because in conference tournament time it’s a sprint. What makes tournaments great? What makes tournaments great is Cinderella – the upset story.

“I realize every year at this point it’s going to be difficult to go down there and not get upset, and that’s why we work so hard in the regular season to put ourselves in a position to get an at-large bid, which we’ve done this year. That gives us a level of comfort not many teams have, so we’re glad to have that.”

WKU – ranked No. 18 in the latest American Volleyball Coaches Association poll – went 24-1 in the regular season, with its only loss coming at home to Ole Miss. The Hilltoppers went a perfect 12-0 in C-USA play – with sweeps in nine of those matches – to claim their seventh regular-season title in eight seasons in the league and to lock up the top seed from the East.

The Hilltoppers are 18-1 in C-USA Tournament matches and 6-0 in championship matches. WKU has won 45 straight regular-season C-USA contests and is 138-7 all-time against C-USA opponents since joining the league.

After a much-needed week-plus off since its regular-season finale, WKU will look to improve upon those numbers this weekend.

The Hilltoppers open this year’s tournament against UAB – the No. 4 seed from the West – at 4 p.m. CT Friday. The Blazers are 11-13 overall and 6-6 in C-USA, and Hudson said “this is certainly a team that can advance in this tournament.” WKU hasn’t played UAB this season, but the two faced off in WKU’s only regular-season match in the fall of the COVID-delayed 2020-21 season.

The winner will advance to play the winner of Friday’s final quarterfinal between UTEP and FIU in a 1:30 p.m. CT semifinal match Saturday.

Rice is the top seed from the West and was the top overall seed for the tournament because its No. 25 RPI is one spot better than WKU in those rankings. The Owls were in the receiving-votes category of the latest AVCA poll and enter with a 17-5 overall record and 12-0 mark in C-USA play. WKU and Rice have played in the last two championship games, with the Hilltoppers taking both.

The C-USA championship match is scheduled for 10 a.m. CT Sunday.

Hudson believes “this year of all years with everything everybody’s been through emotionally and mentally, you’re going to see more upsets in tournaments this year than you’ve ever seen,” and that his team – which boasts the nation’s second best hitting percentage (.342) and fourth-best opponent hitting percentage (.127) – just needs to “try to be the best version of ourselves.”

“Our kids, I hope they get excited. It’s been hard to get excited for a while for them just because they’re so emotionally drained, but I hope this is an exciting time for them,” Hudson said. “We’ve played awfully, awfully well this time of year in conference tournament time, but that’s no guarantee. I think a lot of people just think we go to the tournament and win it, and this is a difficult task. You have to be at your best every day and you hope to not be the one on the wrong end of a Cinderella in this tournament, and the gap is not so large that it can’t happen in a lot of these matches starting in the first round.”{&end}

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