Team Profile: 2006 BracketBuster Preview: Northern Arizona at Western Kentucky
The Lumberjacks come into this match-up leading the Big Sky Conference with an 18-7 (10-1 Big Sky) record. Northern Arizona started off league play with eight straight victories, propelling them to the top of the conference. A loss at Eastern Washington ended what was then the longest winning streak in the nation at ten games. But the Lumberjacks are looking to expand on a surprisingly successful season and land a birth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years.
The Lumberjacks are an experienced team, originally returning four starters off their 2004-2005 squad. However, a poor start to the season seemed to turn after a close loss at Arizona in early December that dropped the Lumberjacks’ record to 4-5. Coach Mike Adras said that his team gained confidence after the defeat, discovering that they had the ability to play with talented teams. “I was proud of our guys,” said Coach Adras. “They came to play a determined game.”
It was that determination that fueled the hot streak, with their only loss prior to the Eastern Washington defeat coming to Arizona State in a holiday tournament. Balanced scoring has been a hallmark of the Lumberjacks, as four players average double figures. Each night, a different individual has stepped up. Junior forward Ruben Boykin Jr. averages nearly a double-double in conference play, with almost 14 points and 10 rebounds per game. Senior Kelly Golob has been the go-to-guy in late game situations, hitting game-winning shots against San Francisco and Idaho St. He technically leads the team in points per game, but the timing of his buckets have been the key. Junior Tyrone Bazy and senior sixth man Steve Sir have each taken turns guiding this team with big performances. Finally, freshman point guard Josh Wilson has stepped up big-time in the season-long absence of senior DeJuan Stevens, pacing the team with what is clearly an even distribution of the ball.
The Lumberjacks’ depth is the secret to their success. “It is somebody different every night,” said coach Adras. “We have such great balance and we share the basketball.”
Adras will be looking for a major contribution from someone to lead Northern Arizona to a resume-building victory in the Bracket Buster match-up. Thus far, the ‘Jacks biggest non-conference win was the triumph over the San Francisco Dons. Northern Arizona certainly would love to grab an eye-catching victory in a tough environment on national television. While an at-large bid is out of the question, should NAU win the Big Sky Tournament, this game will surely help with seeding.
The Hilltoppers are likely more familiar to the average college basketball fan than their opponents in this fourth Bracket Buster event. An NCAA Sweet 16 appearance in the 1993 tournament, including a major upset of the hottest team entering that tournament, the Seton Hall Pirates, helped put WKU on the college basketball map. Five additional tournament appearances since then have helped make the Hilltoppers instantly recognizable, and former coach Dennis Felton is considered one of the country’s hottest young coaches, thanks to his work in Bowling Green, Ky., and revitalization of Georgia. WKU’s mascot “Big Red” is also quite familiar, thanks in part to Capital One’s yearly mascot challenge and a controversy over the resemblance of the fuzzy red blob to the creation for the 2004 Olympics in Greece.
Western Kentucky prepared for the season by traveling to Spain for a slate of five exhibition games. The experience and time playing together helped shape the team for a challenging schedule of non-conference games, as well as tough Sun Belt conference battles. Close losses at home to Felton’s Georgia Bulldogs and at Arizona were countered with huge wins at Alabama-Birmingham and at home versus the Virginia Cavaliers. Add those marquee non-conference wins to a 10-1 conference record, and you have the makings of a potential at-large team.
This season, returning All-Conference selection Anthony Winchester (no relation to yours truly) has led the Hilltoppers. The 6-4 guard has won the hearts of the WKU faithful over his career, but has really stepped up this year, averaging 18 points per game and pacing the outside attack. Sophomore Courtney Lee, the Freshman of the Year in the Sun Belt Conference last season, is also averaging nearly 18 points per game. Winchester is more of a shooter while Lee can break an opponent down off the dribble. Two transfers, Benson Callier (Florida State) and Elgrace Wilborn (Tennessee) provide the capable supporting cast for the Hilltoppers. The team averages nearly 79 points per game, basing its offense on easy looks in transition and the outside shooting of Winchester.
The profile for Western Kentucky is strong, especially for a Sun Belt power with a reputation for knocking off teams in March. Credit the Hilltoppers for their aggressive scheduling; also, credit the big schools for taking a chance in playing WKU.
For Northern Arizona, a win would be icing on the cake this season. The team was not expected even to be close to an NCAA team this year, as they were picked fourth in the Big Sky in the preseason polls. An RPI of 149 will not get it done for an at-large bid, but a victory on national television over Western Kentucky would easily classify as their biggest of the season. Logic tells us that winning the Big Sky tournament is of much higher value in the long run.
For Western Kentucky, a win in the Bracket Buster may not enhance the resume greatly, but a loss would be devastating. Sporting a current RPI ranking of 47, a win over NAU would certainly get them on the bubble. Wins from the out-of-conference opponents are much-needed, as is a continuation of dominance within the Sun Belt. Losing to Northern Arizona at home would dash the hopes of the Big Red nation (non-Cornhusker division) of an at-large bid. A win could propel them to the Big Dance.
Diddle Arena is sure to be hopping for yet another nationally-televised appearance by the home team. This distinct home-court advantage may be the difference.
Western Kentucky is also a team that is used to the attention, having played in the post-season on a regular basis, whether in the NCAA Tournament or NIT. A hot Anthony Winchester or Courtney Lee can carry this club on his back, while Northern Arizona has to rely on a team effort. The combination of two stars and a home-court advantage should allow the Hilltoppers to prevail. Either way, a balanced, well-played contest should prove entertaining and worthy of a spot on the Bracket Buster docket.
Prediction: Western Kentucky 83, Northern Arizona 70