It's come down to this for a talented, inconsistent, maddening Western Kentucky basketball team -- win three games in the Conference USA Basketball Tournament at Frisco, Texas this week, or ruminate with regret of what might have been.
Seeded second behind regular season champion Old Dominion, the Hilltoppers begin their quest at Ford Center at The Star at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday night in the quarterfinal round against North Texas.
Absolutely nothing is guaranteed for an enigmatic WKU team in a tournament that appears to be as wide open at the South Texas Plains.
Western is talented enough to string together three good games and win the event, unpredictable enough to flame out in its opener, and inconsistent enough to fall somewhere in between.
The Hilltoppers (18-13, 11-7 C-USA) won 10 of their final 14 league games after a 1-3 start that included three losses by a total of five points in games they led by at least 15 points. Go figure.
The promising news from a historical perspective is that the Tops have advanced to at least the semifinals of their conference tournament (C-USA or Sun Belt) in 12 of the last 14 seasons, and the program is 23-7 with four championships in the last 11 conference tournaments overall.
But that was then and this is now.
So, what must Western do to win the C-USA Tournament? Maximize its talent.
As nutty as this season has been (and it's certainly been of the 'Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs' variety), one aspect hasn't changed -- the Hilltoppers maintain the league's most talented starting five.
Charles Bassey, the team's sublime 6-foot-11 freshman center, has more than lived up to his advance billing -- averaging 15 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game, while shooting 63 percent from the field and 77 percent from the foul line.
Destined to be a first-round selection in this year's NBA Draft, Bassey is the league's Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. He was chosen as one five finalists (and the only freshman) for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award, presented to the nation's premier pivot man.
Bassey must be WKU's focal point. The Toppers, who shoot only 33 percent from distance, must provide him as many touches as possible. If they do, this will lead to frontline foul trouble for the opposition, a boat load of free throws for Bassey, and more quality looks for the team's capable, if streaky, perimeter shooters.
Western must play with urgency, focus and enthusiasm. There can be no "throwaway" possessions, which at various junctures this season have led to long stretches of stagnation and, ultimately, defeat. At this point, the margin for error is razor-thin. The Hilltoppers must be dialed in from the opening tip until the final horn.
WKU must receive the best versions of sophomore guards Taveion Hollingsworth and Josh Anderson, who helped spur a drive to the NIT semifinals a year ago. Both have had their moments, but neither has played with the consistency necessary for their team to be of championship caliber. This must change in Texas, or else it will be a short run for WKU.
Senior point guard Lamonte Bearden and junior swingman Jared Savage must be take-charge leaders. Bearden twice played in the NCAAs for Buffalo, and Savage played in the Big Dance as a freshman at Austin Peay. Both know what it takes to get to the promised land. Drawing from their respective experiences, they must embody a contagious and energetic championship mindset.
Western must get more from its subpar bench. The team's reserves have been sporadic, at best, and this somehow must change. Can shooting guard Jake Ohmer heat up from long range? Can center Tolu Smith be efficient and formidable in the paint? Can the length of forward Marek Nelson and guard Dalano Banton cause defensive havoc?
Finally, WKU must rebound and defend with passion and persistence. When they do, the Hilltoppers are very good (ask Wisconsin, Saint Mary's and Arkansas). When they don't, they're the very definition of mediocre (ask Indiana State, Missouri State and Troy).
Can Western find a way to salvage a perplexing season that has fallen short of expectations? Will the Hilltoppers dig deep and finally reach their potential? Do they have what it takes to win a conference tournament title the way their commonwealth brethren Murray State (Ohio Valley) and Northern Kentucky (Horizon) already have?
WKU's moment of truth has arrived.