Coach Crutchfield Headed Back to Elite Eight

EVANSVILLE, Ind. — It was no secret that Jim Crutchfield was one of the nation’s premier basketball coaches during his tenure at West Liberty University. What he did with the Hilltoppers was nothing short of amazing.

Now his encore performance in the Sunshine State may be even more impressive.

Many were shocked when Crutchfield opted to resign from West Liberty, head to Florida and take over Nova Southeastern, a D-II program in shambles. But it has taken just two seasons for the coaching icon to raise his Sharks from the depths of perennial losing to the Elite Eight.

The Fort Lauderdale-based Sharks were bottom feeders in the Sunshine State Conference the year prior to Crutchfield’s arrival, finishing 10th in an 11-team loop. They won just three of 18 conference games while finishing 6-20 overall.

Crutchfield’s impact was immediate and impressive. Nova won its first six games last winter en route to a 17-10 finish, including an 11-9 conference mark, good for fourth place.

This season, the Sharks were a sparkling 29-3, earning the No. 4 seed in this week’s Elite Eight. Nova, which was ranked fifth in the final NCAA D-II poll, advanced to Evansville on the strength of a 89-74 win over Lynn.

Needless to say, his Sharks are swimming in uncharted water.

“Things are a little bit crazy down here right now.

“This is not basketball country and Nova is not used to this. Our student body is really getting into it,” Crutchfield said in a phone interview Thursday. “After we won to make the Elite Eight, Reid Amos (MEC Commissioner) called me and asked how it felt. I said it feels a lot like the first time we made it to the Elite Eight at West Liberty. You can’t believe it is really happening.”

Next up for Nova is No. 5 seeded Saint Anselm. The New Hampshire-based Hawks are 22-5 and ranked No. 11 nationally. Crutchfield expects a stern test.

“They are a very solid and mature team. They are fundamentally sound,” Crutchfield said. “They have nice size. They are all between 6-(foot)-3 and 6-8. We will definitely have our hands full.”

Compounding matters for the Sharks is the team’s physical condition.

“We are a little beat up right now. We had two players hauled off the floor in our last game,” Crutchfield noted. “We were also hoping to have Connor (Zinaich) back. He fractured his hand earlier in the year. He returned to action only to fracture his other hand. He is done for the year.”

Zinaich was the team’s second leading scorer. The 6-6 swingman averaged 19.7 ppg. in 15 games this winter.

One of the key cogs for Nova is 6-1 guard David Dennis. The senior dandy is averaging 16 points a game. Dennis played his first two years at West Liberty before heading to Florida with Crutchfield. He earned MEC Freshman of the Year honors while being named second-team All-MEC as a sophomore.

“Our team has kept everything in perspective,” Crutchfield said. “Our players are in the right frame of mind. They are mentally ready.

“We will leave for Indiana Monday morning. Then we have a lot of press conferences and banquets to deal with. We play the first game Wednesday at noon. We realize we won’t have many fans making the long trip. But we will be ready.”

While Crutchfield and his staff were expecting more improvement this season, an Elite Eight berth was not on Nova’s radar at the season’s onset. That began to change midway through the campaign.

“Teams down here are really strong. When we started winning consistently and winning a lot of close games then I knew we could win big games,” Crutchfield said.

“Our conference really toughens you up. So by mid-season we were able to win so many close games that I felt we had a chance. Our guys now know they are as good as anyone in the country.”

Crutchfield, who led West Liberty to five Elite Eight berths, deflects much of the credit for Nova’s turnaround to some Hilltopper help.

“I took a big risk, leaving a great situation for a chance to do it again,” Crutchfield said. “So I do have a sigh of relief with what we have accomplished. It has come faster than I thought.

“But I am getting way too much credit for what is taking place here,” he added. “Having players and coaches with West Liberty roots have helped change the culture. This is not basketball country.

“David (Dennis) helped to change the dynamics of how his teammates play the game and the work involved and how to practice. He is a great player on the court and a class act off it. He is a great ambassador for our program, Crutchfield said. “Coach (Devin) Hoehn and Coach (Jordan) Fee both played for me at West Liberty and have done a great job of instilling a different style of basketball here. I have had a handful of guys behind me to make this happen.”

Crutchfield’s success at West Liberty reads like this:

∫ 359-61 record (.855 winning percentage);

∫ Nine NCAA D-II tourney bids;

∫ Seven straight Sweets 16s;

∫ Five NCAA D-II Elite Eight berths;

∫ Four Final Fours;

∫ 2014 national runner-up.


∫ The Adrian College (Mich.) softball team is off to a fine start this spring. The Bulldogs are 6-4 heading into today’s home twinbill against Ohio Wesleyan. Former St. John Central and Bethany College star Ashley Marinacci is Adrian’s head coach.

∫ John Marshall graduate Jackie Gellner recently completed her collegiate hockey career for Holy Cross. The Glen Dale native was a four-year letterwinner for the D-I Massachusetts-based college. In addition to her hockey prowess, Gellner was an all-state performer for the Monarchs’ softball team. She also graduated sixth in her JM class with a 4.49 GPA.

∫ I continue to rant about the ability to lose a sectional final game in the West Virginia state basketball postseason and still have the chance to win a state championship. University made the most of that rule last weekend defeating Martinsburg in the Class AAA finale. The Hawks lost to rival Morgantown in the sectional finals.

∫ Congratulations to River basketball star Lauren Flannery as her honors continue to mount. The two-time All-Ohioan has been now named to the third team of the MaxPreps All-Ohio (regardless of class) Basketball Team. Flannery, the Eastern District and District 12 Player of the Year, finished her sparkling career with 1,724 points. She has accepted a hoop scholarship to D-II Lake Erie. Flannery was also recently named Academic All-Ohio with teammate Carsyn Reynolds.

∫ Wheeling’s Sue Vail has been selected for induction into 10th Class of the West Virginia Golf Hall of Fame. Vail captured eight West Virginia Women’s Amateur championships and six straight West Virginia Senior Amateur Championships. She started the women’s golf program at Wheeling Jesuit University in 2003. She remains the Cardinals’ head coach. Her Cards have won four conference titles and she has been named conference coach of the year on three occasions.

∫ Ben Howlett is a rising star in the college coaching profession. The former West Liberty hoop star did a remarkable job guiding his alma mater to one step away from the Elite Eight this season. Howlett had a Hilltoppers roster steeped in youth this winter. He has his Toppers built for a long and successful run.

∫ Former Linsly basketball standout Jibri Blount enjoyed a fine season with North Carolina Central. The 6-7 redshirt junior averaged 10 points and five rebounds a game for the Eagles. N.C. Central finished 18-16, losing its NCAA Tournament play-in game to North Dakota State, 78-74 on Wednesday.

∫ Major League Baseball play has commenced. My pick is for the Indians to beat the Dodgers in the World Series.

∫ Tony Chiazza is a rising star in the realm of NCAA D-I basketball officiating. The Wheeling resident worked the Purdue-Old Dominion NCAA Tournament opening-round game Thursday. Meanwhile, Ohio Valley native Ted Valentine worked Friday’s Houston and Georgia State contest.

Bubba Kapral can be reached at bkapral@timesleaderonline.com.


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