Hilltoppers Have To Choose In Elite 8

WEST LIBERTY – As the man in charge of a program that prides itself on challenging every shot and playing stifling defense, it pains West Liberty men’s basketball coach Jim Crutchfield to admit he’s going to have to choose what to allow Winona State when the two team’s meet in an NCAA Division II national quarterfinal at 2:30 on Thursday at Louisville’s Freedom Hall.

The Central Region champion Warriors (27-7) are not only big, they’re athletic, and shoot the 3-pointer at a 36-percent clip.”

”Across the board they’re a little different than most teams,” Crutchfield said. ”They’re kind of like us except they don’t shoot it quite as well as we do percentage-wise, because they have a lot of guys that shoot 3s.

”Their mentality is they probably don’t want to shoot a lot of 3s against us.”

That’s likely a correct assumption considering the size advantage the Warriors hold on the Hilltoppers (33-1), who enter the Elite 8 as not only three-time champions of the Atlantic Region, but as the No. 1 team in the country. West Liberty’s plan to combat that size will likely be double-teaming as soon as guys like All-American center Clayton Vette (6-foot-9) and Kellen Taylor (6-7), a guard by trade, catch the basketball in the post. In turn, that could lead to some open looks behind the arc if Hilltoppers defenders are slow on their rotations.

”Sometimes when you don’t want to shoot them you don’t shoot them that well,” Crutchfield said. ”There’s going to have to be some guys that make some double-down plays and scramble back to their guys.

”To control their All-American inside 1-on-1 will be very difficult to do.”

Big-Time Pressure

It remains to be seen how well the Warriors can handle a full-court, 40-minute press like the one the Hilltoppers will throw their way. Crutchfield said pressure in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference is generally saved for late-game situations.

But …

“All the way across the board, even their bigs are good ballhandlers and good passers. I was watching how comfortable they are in a half-court set, because they didn’t get pressed a lot,” Crutchfield said of Winona. ”That’s something that I am looking for, how good is this guy going to be with the ball?

”We played Bowie State, similar size, but watching on tapes I could see they had some guys that weren’t very comfortable with the ball.

”These guys are. They’re good with the ball.”

That starts with 6-5 point guard Grant Johnson.

“He is crafty and is good with the ball, not just as a ballhandler, but as a passer,” Crutchfield said. ”He’s so long and sees the floor so well.”

Crutchfield said the Warriors handled pressure with ease when it was applied during the games he watched. However, it would stand to reason there’s a major difference between getting it for 40 minutes from a team that uses the press as its modus operandi, as opposed to one that simply breaks it out when behind late in games.

”I hope so,” Crutchfield said. ”We’ve got different looks with our press. It kind of looks the same, but we’ve got different variables we change here and there if we feel we’re in danger of giving up something too easy by the way we’re pressing.

”We’ve got some ways to take it a notch back and say ‘we’re less likely to give up a layup under this type of pressure.’ We’ll be feeling them out through different types of pressure.”

Foul Trouble?

It was at this same point last season that the Hilltoppers got themselves in trouble with foul issues. In a season-ending loss to Stonehill, Mass. (91-90), West Liberty ran into all kinds of foul issues. Point guard Cedric Harris picked up three in the first half, then a fourth early in the second half. He eventually fouled out while Chris Morrow, C.J. Hester and Keene Cockburn, the Hilltoppers’ top inside players, finished with four each.

”We found some early foul trouble (against Stonehill) and that could be an issue because of (Winona’s) strength inside,” Crutchfield said. ”Their whole team is more athletic than I would have anticipated they were.

”You look at their size and think they’re just big guys who push and shove, but they’re not.

”They know how to rebound, they anticipate things and they’re very athletic.”

Shawn Rine can be reached via e-mail at srine@theintelligencer.net