By Tony Viola, Staff Writer
Coach Crutchfield’s motto: “We just play a game.”
After a 107-73 rout of second place Alderson-Broaddus on Feb. 13, the No. 2 ranked West Liberty men’s basketball team captured its third straight WVIAC title.
The Hilltoppers (25-1, 20-0) did it in an usual fashion as they topped the century mark for the tenth time in the last 11 games and shot better than 50 percent from the floor for the 15th time this year.
For a team that lost four 1,000-point scorers due to graduation, the odds were against West Liberty to pull off the three-peat, especially with two weeks of the regular season left to play.
“It’s shocking to win a conference championship this early,” Coach Jim Crutchfield said. “It’s surprising; it’s something I didn’t think was going to happen with losing a lot of players from last year’s team, but these guys have really stepped up with a great level of intensity.”
With the loss of Corey Pelle, John Wolosinczuk, Jordan Fortney and Barry Shetzer, coaches around the WVIAC thought that the Hilltoppers would have a rebuilding year and that would give their teams a chance to take the conference, but Crutchfield had other plans.
“I know people were saying and thinking we might be down a little bit this year and I hate to disappoint them, but we’re playing pretty good.”
Pretty good? How about pretty damn good.
West Liberty once again leads the nation in scoring, averaging over 104 points per contest. WLU also boasts a winning margin of 22.5 points, a stat which has not gone unnoticed by fellow conference coaches.
“We don’t have a lot of variety of styles of play,” Crutchfield said. “We basically play one way. We play man-to-man defense and we run and jump when the opportunity occurs. When these guys get in, they play our defense.”
So does Crutchfield sense a level of disappointment from his fellow coaches?
“Well, possibly, but I’m not that sensitive of a guy,” he said. “It’s not like I’m losing sleep over it or anything.”
Then the Basketball Times NCAA Division II National Coach of the Year won’t toss and turn after hearing A-B coach Greg Zimmerman vow revenge for his team’s embarrassing loss.
Perhaps it was his team being down 16-2 in the first two and a half minutes of the game that ticked him off. Or maybe it was reserve player Nick Brown’s three-pointer with 1:07 remaining that put the Hilltoppers up by 37 that got under the Battlers’ coach’s skin.
“It’s not like I’m going to send them in and say hey you need to play someone else’s defense here because we want to be politically correct about this and not hurt people’s feelings. We just play a game,” Crutchfield said.
A game that Crutchfield has now won 200 times on the Hilltop. His 83 career winning percentage is one of the best among all active NCAA Division II coaches.
“That’s 200 wins for the whole program, not just for one man,” Crutchfield said. “You can’t win 200 games in eight seasons without having good assistant coaches and good players in your program and that’s certainly been the case here. I’m just proud to be part of that program.”
With No. 1 Bellarmine being upset Thursday night, the Hilltoppers have a good chance to take over the spot that they held for the last several weeks of the 2010-2011 season.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I see West Liberty as the No. 1 team in the country the last week of the season. If you told me we got a fast start off of last year’s reputation, then maybe. But when you’re No. 1 in the country the last week of the season, it has nothing to do with last year.
“It’s flattering and we’re excited about it, but it doesn’t help you win the next game. As a matter of fact, it probably puts a target on your back so we need to play good basketball from here on in.”
The National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) released its weekly NCAA Division II Top 25 on Feb. 21.
Crutchfield and the Hilltoppers traveled to Wheeling Wednesday night to take on Ohio County rival Wheeling Jesuit (18-8, 14-6). Tipoff was at 7:30 p.m.