Brian Lester, NCAA.com
Jim Crutchfield didn’t hand his West Liberty team a basketball and give it the green light to score points at will. In all honesty, the head coach of the Hilltoppers paid a lot of attention to detail in constructing a team that is one of the most explosive in the country, lighting up opponents like a fancy firework display.
West Liberty (9-0) is averaging 128.1 points per game, twice hanging more than 150 points on the board. Its biggest win was a jaw-dropping 154-48 victory against Lock Haven in its season opener. The third-ranked Hilltoppers — the highest ranking in school history — have looked like a national championship contender, scoring at least 100 points in every game and winning by no less than 18.
“There isn’t just one thing that has led to our success,” Crutchfield said. “From the first day of practice, we worked on taking care of all of the details. I am very demanding, but you have to be to play the way we do. Everyone on the team is pushed hard.”
Shooting the ball effectively from beyond the arc has been one of the primary keys to West Liberty’s success. The Hilltoppers are averaging 17.1 3-pointers per game and are shooting 46 percent from long range. Sharp-shooting senior guards Jordan Fortney and Barry Shetzner have led the attack, nailing 34 and 32 treys, respectively. Three other players on the team have nailed at least 13.
Yet, as much as the 3-point numbers scream for attention on the stat sheet, it’s not as if the Hilltoppers are one-dimensional. “The numbers are a little deceptive,” Crutchfield said. “We do focus a lot on 3-point shooting, and we have a lot of guys that can make those shots, but we are still scoring about 70 points from inside the 3-point line. Our offense is multi-faceted. We can score from anywhere on the floor.”
No doubt about it. And what causes defenses such a headache is the fact that the Hilltoppers basically force opponents to pick their poison. Senior guard Corey Pelle is the leading scorer (19.3 ppg), and there are five other players on the roster who average at least 10 points per outing: Shetzner (16.4), Fortney (15.4), senior forward John Wolosinczuk (13.9) sophomore guard Alex Falk (10.8) and sophomore forward Chris Morrow (10.4). Six other players average between 5 and 9 points per outing. As a team, West Liberty is shooting 54.2 percent from the field.
“We have a lot of shooters on the team and we do a good job of stretching defenses,“ Crutchfield said. “We know if one player is having a tough night, someone else will step up.”
As if an offense that is a nightmare to game plan for wasn’t enough for opponents to deal with, the Hilltoppers also play defense. It may not appear that way, considering West Liberty is allowing 79.1 per game, but a closer look tells a different story. “The [points allowed] stat is a little deceptive,” Crutchfield said. “An opponent probably gets 85 to 90 possessions per game, and if you look at points per possession, we are a pretty good defensive team.
“We don’t let opponents relax,” he said. “We guard all over the court. We take some chances on defense, maybe some risks that other teams wouldn’t take, but we know the reward is greater than the risk.”
It’s safe to say that style of defense has worked out fairly well for West Liberty. It has forced opponents to cough up the ball 243 times, including 161 turnovers off steals.
Conditioning is one of the keys to the success. “It is just as important to be physically conditioned as it is mentally conditioned,” Crutchfield said. “We have a conditioning test we do the first day we practice and you have to be in good shape to pass it. It forces guys to run over the summer so that they come back ready to pass it. No one on the team wants to fail it.”
A year ago, West Liberty made it to the NCAA tournament for only the second time in school history. The thrill of the accomplishment was punctuated by the program’s first two postseason wins at the DII level. The magic of a 29-3 season faded away in an 84-72 loss to eventual national runner-up Indiana (Pa.) in the East Regional championship game, slamming the door shut on a chance for the Hilltoppers to play in the Elite Eight at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass.
“The loss was a reality check for us. It made us realize that if we can play against the national runner-up, we can play with anyone in the country,” Crutchfield said. “We had a chance to win that regional final but just fell a little short. It has helped motivate the team for this season.”
So far, it has worked. But Crutchfield knows national titles are not won in December. They are the product of surviving the grind of a marathon season. “I hope we can keep it going,” he said. “We know we can’t relax. We have to be able to play well in every game and not have any letdowns. It’s a big challenge and hopefully this team is up for it.”