The members of Western Kentucky’s basketball team could have been dejected playing in the NIT instead of the NCAA Tournament. They missed qualifying for March Madness by a single point, losing in the title game of the Conference USA Tournament to Marshall, 67-66.

Western Kentucky basketball
Western Kentucky has upset two top teams to reach the Final Four of the NIT at Madison Square Garden. (Image: Steve Roberts/WKU Athletics)

With their ticket to the NCAA Tournament taken away, they had to settle for entry into the NIT, but members of the Hilltoppers don’t see this as a consolation prize. Senior Justin Johnson told the Louisville Courier-Journal that this has been better in some ways than going to the Big Dance.

“We have a chance to play two more games and win a championship, and that’s a pretty huge deal for our school,” Johnson said. “The attention that would bring us, would be awesome.”

The team wasn’t given much of a chance to win the NIT. They were a 25/1 pick, the same as fellow Final Four qualifier Mississippi State. Penn State was 20/1, and Utah was an 18/1 pick.

High Seeds Reach Final Four

Western Kentucky will face Utah in the first semifinal at Madison Square Garden. The Utes are the highest remaining seed at No. 2. Utah opened as a point favorite, with the line moving to 1.5. The over/under began at 142, then dropped to 139.5.

The Hilltoppers are No. 4 out of eight seeds and will have to defend the 3-point line if they are going to stop the high-scoring Utes. Utah averages 27.9 points per game on 3-pointers and Western Kentucky allows 36 percent from beyond the arc, ranking 236th in the country.

But the team has been an underdog in its last two games and survived. They knocked off No. 1 USC in the second round, when they were 4.5-point road underdogs. They then took care of Oklahoma State, 92-84, to reach the Final Four. The Sooners, who along with USC were expected to get into the NCAA, were 6.5-point picks.

Battle of No. 4s

In the other semifinal game Mississippi State will face Penn State. Both are No. 4 seeds and both knocked off No. 1 and No. 2 seeds to reach the Final Four. PSU is favored by 2.5 points and the over/under is 135.

The Bulldogs, who are coached by ex-UCLA coach Ben Howland, were underdogs in their last two games. Against No. 1 Baylor, they were getting 5.5 points on the road. They upset the Bears, 78-77. Then they traveled to play Louisville, who were six-point picks. MSU took care of the No. 2 Cardinals, 79-56.

The Nittany Lions path to the Final Four was even more impressive. Penn State faced No. 1 overall seed Notre Dame in the second round and the Fighting Irish were 5.5-point selections. PSU dominated Notre Dame, winning by 10, 73-63. They then had to face No. 2 Marquette and went into the game as 2.5-point underdogs. They won that game by five, 85-80.

The team played in the Big 10 Conference Tournament at Madison Square Garden and made it a goal to return to New York City for the NIT, Head coach Patrick Chambers said on the school’s website.

“To be going back to New York is something that we all really wanted, that was the goal when we were selected to play in the NIT, to get back to New York,” he said. “We’re fired up.”

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