WEST LIBERTY - Try to imagine how a college basketball team could lose the National Player of the Year and two other 1,000-point scorers to graduation and still be ranked No. 3 in the nation heading into the following season.
Not easy, is it?
That's the level of respect coach Jim Crutchfield and his high-scoring West Liberty program have earned as he heads into his 10th year off a third consecutive 30-victory season and NCAA Division II Elite Eight championship tournament run.
Crutchfield, who leads all NCAA men's basketball coaches in winning percentage (241-45, .843), does have some holes to fill following the loss of NCAA Division II Player of the Year Alex Falk and 1,000-point scorers Chris Morrow and Tim Hausfeld. That senior trio capped their spectacular four-year run on the hilltop last winter with a school-record 34-2 campaign that carried them all the way to the national semifinals at Louisville's Freedom Hall.
"This is the year where our system has to show its strength," Crutchfield said. "We like to think there's a certain style of play that's become synonymous with West Liberty basketball in recent years. Last year's senior class certainly did its part to live up to the tradition. Now it's time for this group to step up and embrace the challenge."
Crutchfield has plenty of ammunition for his latest reloading project, starting with 6-foot senior guard Cedric Harris. A first-team NCAA Division II Preseason All-American, who has already surpassed the 1,600-point mark, Harris was the team's second-leading scorer (16.8 ppg.) and ranked among the Atlantic Region leaders with 5.2 assists per game.
Also back for the Black and Gold are 6-4 junior C.J. Hester (12.1 ppg., 9.2 rpg.), an Academic All-American who is on pace to become the school's career rebounding leader and is less than 100 points away from the 1,000-point mark, along with 6-0 junior guard Shawn Dyer (11.1 ppg.), who has come off the bench to score more than 800 points the past two seasons.
They'll be joined in the rotation by a pair of tourney-tested sophomore sharpshooters in 6-6 Seger Bonifant (8.7 ppg., 65 3FG) and 6-0 former Wheeling Park all-stater Kelvin Goodwin (6.8 ppg., 39 3FG), along with 6-6 senior forward Keene Cockburn.
Waiting in the wings are 6-4 sophomore guard Mike Lamberti, 6-2 senior guard Jeff Yunetz and redshirt freshman guards Devin Hoehn (5-11) and Torin Wetzel (6-6). Freshman recruits Zak Kirkbride (6-5) and Brandon Smith (6-4) have impressed in the preseason.
Despite the changes and challenges of shifting personnel, Crutchfield hasn't altered his goals or his approach. After all, if it isn't broken, why fix it?
"We're preparing for this season just like we've prepared for every season since I've been here," he said. "We want to be playing well enough by the end of the year that we can go down to the conference tournament and feel we have a realistic chance of winning it. We've been able to put ourselves in that position the past few years and things have worked out pretty well."
Former Bethany College head coach Aaron Huffman and ex-Hilltoppers standout Ben Howlett return as Crutchfield's assistants.
Nov. 25: W.Va. State7:30 p.m.
Dec. 5: at Notre Dame7:30 p.m.
Dec. 7: Urbana4 p.m.
Dec. 17: Cedarville7:30 p.m.
Jan. 4: Concord4 p.m.
Jan. 6: UVA-Wise7:30 p.m.
Jan. 9: at Shepherd7:30 p.m.
Jan. 11: at W.Va. Wesleyan4 p.m.
Jan. 13: Glenville State7:30 p.m.
Jan. 18: Fairmont State4 p.m.
Jan. 23: at Wheeling Jesuit7:30 p.m.
Jan. 25: at Urbana4 p.m.
Jan. 30: Notre Dame7:30 p.m.
Feb. 1: Charleston4 p.m.
Feb. 3: at W.Va. State7:30 p.m.
Feb. 6: at Concord7:30 p.m.
Feb. 8: at UVA-Wise4 p.m.
Feb. 13: Shepherd7:30 p.m.
Feb. 15: at Fairmont State4 p.m.
Feb. 20: W.Va. Wesleyan7:30 p.m.
Feb. 22: at Glenville State4 p.m.
March 27: Wheeling Jesuit7:30 p.m.
March 4-9: at MEC TournamentTBA