Can anyone stop West Lib's WVC rampage?
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Liberty's recent dominance over the West Virginia Conference is indisputable, as is the Hilltoppers' role as the heavy favorite in the final version of the WVC men's basketball tournament, which begins today at the Civic Center.
They're ranked No. 1 in the country in NCAA Division II. Over the past four seasons, in which it's won four straight WVC regular-season titles, West Liberty has compiled a record of 121-8, including an unfathomable 93-4 mark against WVC opposition during that span.
The Hilltoppers are sure to be invited - win or lose this week - to the Atlantic Region tournament, which sends the winner to the D2 Elite Eight. West Liberty has landed there the past two seasons after winning that regional.
At a time when college basketball scoring has dipped to a 30-year low, the Hilltoppers lead the nation - all divisions, mind you - in points per game (105.5) by a wide margin, and their scoring margin of plus-26 points per game is also the best in the country.
Their coach, Clarksburg native Jim Crutchfield, is the first man to be named the WVC's men's basketball coach of the year four times in the history of the conference that was formed in 1924 and will shut down at the end of this school year.
With all that going for him, you'd think Crutchfield views the next three days as a mere preliminary for what lies ahead on the D2 national scene, but that's not the case at all.
"Far from it," Crutchfield said. "This field is as strong as it's ever been, and we've had an awful lot of close games. We're not assuming anything."
He has a point.
West Liberty, which plays tonight's primetime game at the Civic Center at 8:30 against No. 9 seed Pitt Johnstown, has indeed had some close calls in WVC play, most recently a 103-99 win at Fairmont State on Feb. 13. Other narrow escapes include an 87-82 win at Ohio County rival Wheeling Jesuit on Jan. 26, an 82-77 win at home against Fairmont State and a 114-109 victory at Shepherd on Jan. 7.
Oh, and of course there's the only blemish on the Hilltoppers' ledger, the 101-96 loss to the University of Charleston on Jan. 14. West Liberty avenged that with a 95-77 win over UC on Feb. 11 in West Liberty, but the setback proves that that this WVC Goliath can indeed be brought down.
That vulnerability is not West Liberty's lone motivation for a third straight WVC tournament title. A loss this week would likely cost the Hilltoppers their No. 1 national ranking and could deny them the right to host that Atlantic Regional.
"We'll have to be ready to play hard and play smart," Crutchfield said. "Sometimes you don't shoot the ball well and you lose. We've had enough close games to know that a bad game can knock us out."
The Hilltoppers bring a 13-game winning streak to the party, but there are other worries. For starters, senior guard Cedric Harris, the team's second-leading scorer at 17.6 points per game, the team's assist leader (5.2 per game) and a first-team All-WVC selection, is recovering from a separated shoulder and is questionable for tonight's game vs. UPJ.
"He's day-to-day, doing everything he can humanly do to be ready," Crutchfield said of Harris. "But we have a good, solid bench and good depth at the guard spots."
Indeed, the thing that makes the Hilltoppers so formidable is their depth. Perhaps it's a byproduct of their many lopsided wins, but nine of the players on the 12-man roster average at least 10 minutes a game and five of them average in double-figure scoring.
Leading scorer and WVC player of the year Alex Falk, a 6-foot-3 senior guard, scores 20.7 points per game, but he contributes far more than scoring. Falk also leads the WVC (and is among the top 10 in the nation) with 87 steals, and he also averages good numbers in rebounding (4.2 per game) and assists (3.2). He's sort of like the Pete Rose of the WVC - no player in the conference's long history has been involved in more victories than the 120 in which Falk has played a role.
Falk is followed in scoring by Harris, sophomore guard C.J. Hester (12.1), 6-6 forward Chris Morrow (12.0) and sophomore guard Shawn Dyer, who averages his 10.1 points off the bench.
Ah, the bench. There's also Serge Bonifant, a 6-7 forward who was named to the WVC's all-freshman team. He averages 9.4 points, due mostly to his shocking 57 percent 3-point accuracy. There's also freshman guard Bubby Goodwin, the only West Virginian on the roster. Goodwin, who was a three-time Class AAA all-state selection at Wheeling Park, averages 6.7 points and 16.5 minutes. The smallest guy on the court for the Hilltoppers, 5-7 senior guard Tim Hausfeld, has fired up a team-high 138 3-pointers off the bench and averages 8.8 points.
"Depth, and players in great condition," Crutchfield cited as his team's keys to success. "From Day One in the fall, we get our guys in condition to play that kind of game."
Because of that depth and fitness, Crutchfield is able to keep fresh legs on the floor to play the style of game that defies the national scoring trends - a frenetic pace with smothering full-court-pressure defense, terrific ball movement, a universal green light to shoot the 3 and a lineup full of guys their coach describes as "good decision-makers."
"Players that make me look like I know what I'm doing as a coach," Crutchfield calls them. "I'm looking for multi-skilled players who can handle the ball, shoot the ball and are big enough to guard a variety of positions. We put five guys on the floor that can all score and keep all five involved."
There's really no "big man" on the roster, no one taller than 6-7. Watching the Hilltoppers, it seems that most of the parts are interchangeable.
"I think because our [scoring] numbers are so far out of norm, people look for a gimmick, but it's not there," Crutchfield said. "We take good shots, work hard on defense and just try to outscore the other team."
It works, mostly because Crutchfield has created a team atmosphere as close to perfect as this team game allows.
While favored to win not only the WVC tournament but also the Atlantic Region, West Liberty has some unfinished business. The team's record over the past four years, while stunning, is without a coveted national championship, or even an appearance in the Division II championship game:
It all begs the question: Might this year's team be Crutchfield's best, one that might take that final step?
"It's hard to compare, but I do get that question a lot," he said. "It's just something you like to argue about, but you never know."
There are some differences between this West Liberty team and its recent predecessors.
"We're a good shooting team, but a couple years ago we were a great shooting team," Crutchfield said. "We're a little bit quicker, this team is, across the board.
"It makes for great conversation, though."
Look for the Hilltoppers to be a part of a lot of conversations at the Civic Center over the next three days in the WVC tournament's swan song.
Reach Nick Scala at 304-348-7947 or firstname.lastname@example.org.