BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (AP) -The walkthrough at Memphis' practice facility was just supposed to be a refresher, a chance for Western Kentucky coach Ken McDonald to get in a few final pointers before the Hilltoppers began the defense of their Sun Belt Conference championship.
The unspoken message, however, couldn't be clearer.
Looking around at the trappings of the Tigers' remarkable success, the Hilltoppers turned to one another and thought: ``Why can't this be us?''
``Seeing all the stuff they had and the stuff they'd done and the stuff they built as a college program, I told the guys in the huddle that 'if you care anything about Western Kentucky's program, it's setting it up for the future,''' said senior guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez. ``That's something we want to start as a team. We want to build this program into an elite program. You want to be able to look back and be proud that you came from this program and look at it blossom.''
The Hilltoppers already appear to be on their way.
stirring run to the NCAA tournament regional semifinals last year - a sprint that included guard Ty Rogers' game-winning 30-foot buzzer beater against Drake in the opening round.
On Thursday, the 12th-seeded Hilltoppers (24-8) open the tournament against fifth-seeded Illinois (24-9) in Portland, Ore.
The game is 360-plus days and 3,000 miles removed from Rogers' heroics. Maybe that's fitting for a team that looks nothing like the one that gave top-seeded UCLA all it could handle in the regional semifinals.
The faces that lifted the Hilltoppers to their first appearance in the round-of-16 in 15 years are long gone.
Star swingman Courtney Lee is playing for the Orlando Magic. Coach Darrin Horn turned his success into the head coaching job at South Carolina. Rogers is a local sales rep for a pharmaceutical company, though hitting one of the biggest shots in school history means he rarely has to pay for lunch.
Those holes seemed impossible to fill in October, at least by the experts who picked the Hilltoppers to finish third in the lightly regarded Sun Belt's East Division.
The Hilltoppers understand the slight. On paper it looked like a rebuilding year. On the court, they saw something different.
er and forward Steffphon Pettigrew could thrive in his uptempo system.
So rather than rip up Horn's playbook, he decided instead to simply expand the roles of his top players and add a little attitude. Intense but approachable, McDonald quickly won over the team with his enthusiasm.
His players won over him with their effort.
``They've done an incredible job of buying in and not listening to people that don't think you're going to be good,'' McDonald said. ``Our question to our players was 'Why can't somebody be the next Courtney Lee?' and they've run with it. I think the more people doubt you, the better our team has been.''
Count Louisville coach Rick Pitino among the believers. The Hilltoppers dominated the then-No. 3 Cardinals 68-54 in late November, giving one of the nation's top teams a reality check and serving notice Western Kentucky wasn't ready to be a one-shot wonder.
But there have been bumps. Two weeks after shocking Louisville, the Hilltoppers lost by 32 at Evansville. The bench isn't the deepest in the country, and 6-foot-5 forward Steffphon Pettigrew may be among the smallest small forwards in the country.
Yet the Hilltoppers have continued to win, rolling through to a 15-3 conference record and three relatively easy victories in the Sun Belt tournament.
ere more subdued after holding off South Alabama in the title game.
They expected to be here all along.
``We were talking about right when the buzzer ran that we weren't as excited as the first year; it was just a different feeling,'' said Mendez-Valdez, the Sun Belt Player of the Year. ``(We) just kind of liked to throw it back in critics' face, people who said we couldn't do this but we did.''
It's the next step in a process begun long ago for a program that is one of just 14 Division I schools with 1,600 victories.
Although McDonald concedes his team still has plenty of work to do to join the likes of Gonzaga and Memphis, he doesn't see a reason to put a ceiling on the Hilltoppers.
``Gonzaga, they've been to nine straight NCAA tournaments,'' McDonald said. ``So we've got to get there. We've been to 21, which is incredible, and I want to get to 20 straight. That's got to be the goal, year-in, year-out.''

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