WEST LIBERTY - All-American wing Alex Falk describes Winona State as a cross between Indiana, Pa., and Bowie State. West Liberty (33-1) coach Jim Crutchfield said the Warriors (27-7) are extremely big and athletic.
Both parties agree the Hilltoppers' Elite 8 opponent at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday inside Louisville's famed Freedom Hall is the best team it has faced, possibly ever.
''I watched their last three games and to say I am impressed is an understatement. They're incredible,'' Crutchfield said. ''I'm stunned that they even dropped a couple games in the season.
Coach Jim Crutchfield, above, and the top-ranked West Liberty men’s basketball team hope to keep rolling in the NCAA Men’s Division II national quarterfinals this week in Louisville, Ky.
''If they have a weakness I am not sure I've found it yet. We're probably going to have to find it on the court. Looking at them on film, they seem to have all the bases covered.''
If it seems West Liberty is taking this seriously, you need only look back to last year when it was upset by a Stonehill, Mass., club that probably wasn't at the Hilltoppers' level. In talking to anyone involved with the program, that loss has been burning inside for an entire year.
''We just didn't play as smart and guys didn't make the plays - the one's you can control,'' Crutchfield said. ''It's not about missing shots, it's about fighting through screens, boxing out on the boards and those types of things that make you win. We didn't do those.
''For us to be Winona State we have to control every variable that we can. We can't let anything slide by. We can't miss box-out assignments, we cannot be loose with the basketball and can't make mental mistakes.''
The Warriors are out of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference and enter with having played the second-toughest schedule in the country according to the Massey Ratings. And remember, Crutchfield said he has no idea how they even lost a game.
Clayton Vette, a 6-foot-9 center who joined Falk, the D-II National Player of the Year, on the All-American team, is a transfer from Iowa State. He averages 20.7 points and 7.9 rebounds a night for Mike Leaf's program, which won national titles in 2006 and 2008, while finishing runner-up in 2007.
''He's unbelievably good,'' Crutchfield said of Vette. ''I looked at our matchups and everybody is guarding a guy at least 3 inches taller than them, and they're not just big.
''That's not the part that bothers me. It's what they can do. They can play up tempo or they can play half court.''
The Warriors' point guard, senior Grant Johnson, stands 6-5 and Crutchfield said he may be the team's best rebounder. Kellen Taylor is a 6-7 junior that can defend both guards and big men, while Xavier Humphrey (6-2) is the second-leading scorer on a team that has four in double-digits nightly, at 11.3 points.
Winona State shoots 47 percent from the field and 36 percent from the 3-point line.
''They're really athletic and it's going to be a war,'' Falk said. ''They're smart players and we're going to have to play well.
''We're going to have to play our way and work for 40 minutes.''
If there's one advantage the Hilltoppers may have, it comes in the fact Winona State plays in a league where the press is used almost exclusively in late-game situations. The Warriors have more turnovers than they've forced, which is a far cry from the numbers West Liberty puts up.
''We have to dictate the tempo and that's what we've done all year,'' Falk said. ''It doesn't matter because every team here is going to make a run, because every team here is good.
''What we're going to do is we're going to weather it, and after that run they're going to be worn out. That's what we believe and then we're going to turn it on even more because that's what we do.''
Shawn Rine can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org