WEST LIBERTY - It may not get as much play nationally, but the NCAA Division II men's basketball tournament has a special meaning in these parts, right now. There are 16 teams still playing and the top-ranked of the bunch is unbeaten West Liberty (31-0).
What began as a bracket of 64 has been pared down to the Sweet 16, with the Hilltoppers playing host to defending national runner-up Indiana University of Pennsylvania (26-5) at 7 p.m. tonight at the ASRC, for the right to advance to the Elite 8 in Springfield, Mass., beginning next Tuesday.
There's little doubt he was talking tongue-in-cheek, but following his team's opening-round victory Saturday night, IUP coach Joe Lombardi referred to the Atlantic Regional as the ''West Liberty Invitational.''
PHOTO PROVIDED BY WLU
John Wolosinczuk and West Liberty hope to throw down the IUP men tonight at the ASRC.
''It sounds like we're getting set up right now,'' West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield joked.
Fortunately, the Hilltoppers aren't falling for it. They're smart enough to know the Crimson Hawks are not going to roll over as part of West Liberty's perceived coronation.
''They looked great,'' Crutchfield said after IUP's 94-81 victory against Bowie State on Sunday, in a game it trailed 16-4 at the start. ''Everybody thought 'who is going to stop Bowie State?' Obviously IUP.
''They're playing so well right now. They finished the season strong, guys are making shots and they're playing with confidence.''
The Crimson Hawks eliminated the Hilltoppers, 84-72, in last season's regional final. But that was played in Indiana, Pa.. This one will take place in a building where West Liberty has not lost in 48 games, has won 58 of its last 59, and is 91-9 during Crutchfield's tenure.
University officials are expecting another standing-room-only crowd and are encouraging fans to arrive early because seating is on a first-come, first-serve basis. But if you can't make it to the hilltop tonight, Comcast subscribers can catch all the action live on TV-14, West Liberty's television station, and also on RTV-9. In addition, a live video stream will be available online at www.wltvonline.com, or www.hilltoppersports.com.
''The crowd was a big factor in the game - it was the sixth man,'' Crutchfield said Sunday night. ''It kept our guys playing hard.''
West Liberty, which entered Sunday night's game against Shaw winning by an average margin of 32.7 points, had to hold on for a 98-93 victory. The Hilltoppers are fully aware the days of the blowout are likely behind them.
''We'll take a win any way possible,'' sophomore Alex Falk said.
It's not a surprise that the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds have advanced on this side of the bracket, even if that hasn't necessarily been the case nationally. Crutchfield said he really hasn't even thought about that.
''I guess whoever did the regional seeding knew what they were doing after you look at it. One-through-4 won, and 1 and 2 won. The higher-seeded team won every game,'' he said.
''We're happy where we are. It really didn't matter to me which team on the other side we're facing.
''I know it's a rematch of last year's regional final. I think it's a really good rematch, and I think it's going to be an exciting game.''
Shawn Rine can be reached via e-mail at Rine@theintelligencer.net