LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Having been a part of national championships in 2000 and 2002, Metro State men's basketball coach Derrick Clark knows a good team when he sees one. As Clark prepared his Roadrunners (31-2) for today's noon matchup with top-ranked West Liberty (34-1) in a national semifinal at Freedom Hall, what he saw was a great team standing between himself and the right to go to Atlanta on April 7 and play for another title.
"I always like to follow the best programs in the country," Clark said Friday morning. "I have a lot of respect for what they continue to do.
"It's not easy to get back here."
Clark and his players opened the Elite Eight early Thursday and then hung around to watch as West Liberty obliterated Winona State, 110-84. For some coaches that might have forced a trip to the local drug store in hopes of finding the biggest bottle of antacids on the market. But having studied the Hilltoppers for three years, he said that outcome wasn't unexpected, at least not to him.
"If you're a player and a competitor, you want to see how you stack up against the best," Clark said. "They're a No. 1 program. We're a No. 1 program.
"It's fun to just see where you stack up. Individually it's a game within a game. How good are we compared to them, individually?"
To that end, Clark was glad his players got an up-close view of the Hilltoppers, who have been No. 1 in the country nearly all season, except in the immediate aftermath of their lone hiccup against Charleston, which allowed the Roadrunners to ascend to the top spot. West Liberty doesn't appear to be a world beater on film, but the importance of first-hand knowledge cannot be overstated.
"What I've learned in this business, and I've been doing this 16 years as an assistant and three years as a head coach, is you don't judge a book by its cover," Clark said.
"We had a situation where we lost to Kentucky Wesleyan in '99 in Louisville. We were able to make it back the next year and we were in the elevator and it just so happens Kentucky Wesleyan was in there.
"They were looking at our guys like 'when we get this championship ' In other words, they dismissed us by looks.
"West Liberty doesn't have to look the part. The bottom line is they can play."
A game like this one, Clark believes, does a lot for both teams in terms of recruiting. Neither is a stranger to the big stage, which makes aspiring members of the program take notice.
"When we recruit guys, in terms of the early process of recruiting, we tell them you're coming to Metro State because you're going to have an opportunity to play in big-time games and it's the same at West Liberty," Clark said. "Hopefully you're going to have the opportunity to go to the Elite Eight, if we recruit right. That's our message.
"This game right here, this is a recruiting advantage for us. We use it as such."