Is there no stopping the Toppers?
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- If you read this or any of the other numerous stories surrounding the West Liberty men's basketball team over the past couple of years before you actually see the team play, you'll probably think we're all liars the second you set your eyes on the Hilltoppers.
Coach Jim Crutchfield probably sums it up best.
"They're probably like, 'that's them?' " Crutchfield said with a laugh. "We haven't won a warmup yet."
It's true that West Liberty may not look overly athletic or physically imposing, but while it may look more like David, it sure plays like Goliath.
The numbers and the wins are simply mind-boggling.
Since the 2009-2010 season, the Hilltoppers are 67-2 in West Virginia Conference play and are 75-4 overall since 2010-2011.
West Liberty reached the national semifinals in 2011 and, after graduating four starters and 1,000-point scorers, went 32-3 and advanced to the national quarterfinals last year.
"Last year did surprise me," Crutchfield said. "We lost all four top scorers on that team and while I didn't consider it a rebuilding year because we had good personnel, I was honestly surprised by the amount of success we had last year. We're trying really hard here at West Liberty to have a system and a blueprint in place that is as important as the players themselves."
Lack of experience isn't something Crutchfield is battling this year as all five starters from the Hilltoppers' final game last season are back - and it's showing.
West Liberty is ranked No. 1 in the National Association of Basketball Coaches Division II poll and stands at 7-0 early in the season.
In the final year of the WVC's existence, it hasn't taken long for the Toppers to send a message across the state, winning its first three league games by an average of 55.3 points, including a 60-point bludgeoning of West Virginia State on Tuesday.
It would be reasonable then to assume that a national championship is the ultimate and main goal for Crutchfield and the Hilltoppers, right?
Well, not exactly.
"Once you get to the point where you're in the NCAA tournament, you're always in a position no matter how good you are where you could lose a game," Crutchfield said. "You have an off day and they have a great day, you're going to lose. So to put that out as a goal is very difficult to do and I have not done that. My goals have always been the same. I want to put a different style of basketball on the court and get it to where it can win basketball games."
In fact, when it comes to tournament wins, Crutchfield places much more emphasis on a conference championship.
"When it comes to the West Virginia Conference tournament, we want a chance to win it," Crutchfield said. "There have been other years when I was still an assistant that we felt we didn't have a chance to win this thing and there are some schools that know deep down they don't have a chance. We don't want to be in that position."
Considering the Hilltoppers have won two league tournament titles in a row, the Hilltoppers seem a long way from that position, which is fine by Crutchfield.
But in order for his high-octane offense to run properly, Crutchfield has recruited players on his own terms and goes about it from a different angle.
"To play here, you have to have multiple skills," Crutchfield said. "If you watch us play, all of our players are interchangeable. Everybody has to handle the ball and shoot the ball well and have a high level of intensity and make good decisions. When the game starts, it's those guys that tend to win. Our guys aren't pigeonholed into any position."
Those players have West Liberty averaging a whopping 112.6 points per game so far this year, more than 20 points better than second-place Charleston.
For now, the maestro of one of basketball's sweetest offensive symphonies seems content with his duties as the leader of the Hilltoppers, but Crutchfield said he wouldn't close the door completely on a new challenge some day.
"I certainly like it here and it's a great place to coach," Crutchfield said. "I'm not into the D-I thing like a lot of people are. One thing that might be of interest to me would be a good challenge at a D1 job. I don't have an interest to go where a program is already successful. I'd like to try and change the complexion of program, but no one is knocking down my door anyway. I'm likely to remain here because it's a good situation, but if I did leave, I'd be pretty particular as to where I would go."
And much to the chagrin of other schools in the West Virginia Conference and the soon-to-be Mountain East Conference, Crutchfield and West Liberty don't plan on going anywhere.
Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him at twitter.com/Rpritt.