The West Liberty Hilltoppers haven’t simply won basketball games since the Jim Crutchfield era of WLU basketball began 13 years ago. Known for high-scoring affairs and deep postseason runs, WLU entered 2016 as the NABC preseason No. 1 team in the country.
“Expectations are high,” Crutchfield said. “It’s gotten to the point where they are almost a bit unrealistic at times. I'd rather kind of be the underdog, and that’s been difficult the last few years. I worry about our players thinking that we are the best team in the country. If you look at us, we’re not real big, our guys weren’t highly recruited. We try to win by overachieving and when you're preseason No. 1 the concept of overachieving doesn’t make sense sometimes.”
Despite a 31-4 finish to 2015, it ended on a sour note, getting knocked out of the national semifinals by a mere one point. It was still a historic season for the Hilltoppers. WLU moved to 24-8 in tournament play, an NCAA DII record. Crutchfield’s fifth 30-win season in the past six years saw his record go to 331-57. His .853 winning percentage is the highest in NCAA basketball history among coaches who have spent at least 10 seasons as a head coach.
“There’s a source of pride there, too,” Crutchfield said of the preseason No. 1 honors. “It has to do with past history in the program. It’s a compliment to the program, and I appreciate that. I just don’t want our kids to think they are the best in the country yet.”
The Hilltoppers have justified that ranking, starting off where they left off last season. Five games into 2016, they are sitting at 5-0, with a nation’s best 113 points per game. You won’t find any of their players amongst the individual scoring leaders, however. This is an unselfish team, tops in the Mountain East Conference and second in the nation with 23.8 assists per game.
“We’ve always had teams that share the ball extremely well,” Crutchfield said. “We have guys that are multi-skilled. We’ve had the highest number of assists in the country for the last few years, but we’ve never had an individual atop those lists. We’ve been the highest scoring team in the country, but we’ve never had an individual do that. All of our plaques, they are all team things. Our scoring is shared, our assists are shared and even our rebounding is usually shared. We have a five-man motion offense where theoretically everyone is playing the same position.”
They are also amongst the leaders in turnover margin, as they boast a high-energy, ultra-aggressive defense.
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“It’s the one category that if we are going to be a good basketball team, we need to be the best in the country at,” Crutchfield said. “We play a lot of pressure defense, there’s some risks to that. We expose the basket sometimes, we tend to force more turnovers and in the process we shouldn’t turn the ball over too much ourselves.”
One of the key cogs in the Hilltoppers' engine is senior forward Zac Grossenbacher. The Hilltoppers are not a big team in stature, with no centers officially listed on the roster and a mere two forwards sprinkled in amongst 12 guards. Grossenbacher is by and far the biggest man on the team, standing at 6-foot-8, but he has elevated his play to an even larger level.
“He’s become an enormous part of our team right now,” Crutchfield said of his big man. “His experience. He’s a perimeter shooter, but he’s our inside guy. He’s got good size, and our size kind of ends there. This is probably the smallest team I’ve ever had and when Zac walks off the floor we are way too small. It’s very important that he stays on the floor. He’s become a really good overall player. He came in as a shooter, but he has become a good defender, blocker and rebounder and is even scoring inside now. He’s become a very well-rounded player for us.”
Grossenbacher has thus far embraced his role. He is tied with fellow senior Devin Hoehn, leading the Hilltoppers with 17.2 points per outing. He also has a team best 16 3-pointers, connecting at a .571 rate from downtown, quite the impressive feat for a big man. And of course, he leads the team in rebounds per game (9.6) and blocks per game (1.8) in his role as the man in the middle.
“He’s never played college basketball before,” Crutchfield said of Monteroso. “His father is defensive coordinator here at WLU, and grew up in our neck of the woods. Last Saturday, he caught two touchdowns in the afternoon and scored 16 points in the evening. He played two basketball games and a football game in a 24-hour period. That’s pretty rare.”
Now, WLU is ready for their MEC run, looking for their eighth straight conference title. As new powerhouses emerge annually, and the other teams get stronger trying to keep up, it becomes an even more daunting task to claim the honors of the tops of the MEC, and Crutchfield embraces that.
“Our league is starting to get a little notoriety,” Crutchfield said. “Wheeling Jesuit was No.1 last year for a week. Fairmont State was No. 2 for a little bit as well. At one time three of the top five teams in the country were in the MEC. Those two teams are as good as any in the country. That obviously makes our conference very tough.”
A tough 4-1 LeMoyne team comes to West Virginia this Saturday for one of the Hilltoppers' last out of conference games of the season. Sitting at 5-0, you can be sure they are poised to return to the postseason, looking for their unheralded eighth-straight trip to at least the regional finals. With their high-flying offense seemingly in top form, it will be fun to watch WLU in their quest to avenge last season's heart-breaking semifinals loss and see if they can capture their first national championship.