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Rich Stevens: Coaches the difference in 2012-13 WVC season

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Motivation comes in multiple shapes and sizes, and not just from a previous defeat or a No. 1 ranking.

University of Charleston Coach Mark Downey, the excitable mentor who took Arkansas Tech from a relative unknown to the top of the NCAA Division II ranks, knows that as well as anybody.

He's also keenly aware of the pressure that goes with No. 1, something that West Liberty handles as well as anybody, thanks to its success in recent years at the national level and reflected in its relatively stoic reaction to the five-point defeat to the Golden Eagles last Monday night.

By the way, last week's National Association of Basketball Coaches' Top 25 Poll had the Hilltoppers No. 1, and didn't reflect games after Saturday, Jan. 13.

Don't think Coach Jim Crutchfield's Hilltoppers weren't deeply affected by their first West Virginia Conference defeat since last season, but it stops lingering shortly after the final horn sounds.

In the case of the 2012-13 season, when West Liberty held the nation's top spot from the beginning, multiple factors are involved with West Liberty's first loss.

Or, for that matter, the possibility the Hilltoppers will suffer another one before the final WVC season concludes at the league tournament Feb. 27-March 2.

This isn't to say West Liberty was ever invincible. Only five times since 1980 has a team finished undefeated during the league regular season - 1984 West Virginia Wesleyan (20-0), 1986 Charleston (19-0), 1997 Salem-Teikyo (19-0), 2007 Alderson-Broaddus (18-0), 2011 West Liberty (22-0).

What's more important, it shows how good the league is from top to bottom.

You can argue that the talent level doesn't match that of the past when West Virginia Tech's Sedale Threatt earned 1982 tournament most valuable player honors before becoming the last sixth-round pick to play in the NBA. In the big leagues, Threatt scored 9,327 points during a career that spanned 14 years (1983-96, 1997) and five teams (76ers, Bulls, SuperSonics, Lakers, Rockets); or it included NAIA All-American Darryl Odom, who led W.Va. Wesleyan to the 1984 NAIA national championship game; and as far back as Earl Lloyd, the former West Virginia State star who was the first African American player to play in the NBA (1950-51).

The league's illustrious history isn't lost on a young'un like myself who began his recognition of the league back in 1988, but I can also appreciate the value of quality coaching, and that little thing called motivation.

This year, there is more than enough to go around for the lame duck WVC, which will morph into the Mountain East Conference next year without Alderson-Broaddus, Ohio Valley, Davis & Elkins, Bluefield State, Pitt Johnstown and Seton Hill.

Interestingly, one of the conference's most valuable basketball members - Alderson-Broaddus - won't be joining the new league, leaving behind a rich, albeit recent, stint of success under Coach Greg Zimmerman.

Zimmerman is a pretty good motivator, and while cuts have been made campus-wide in Philippi, his team still is among the elite in the conference.

Three of the league's annual bottom feeders - Ohio Valley, Davis & Elkins and Bluefield - are certainly motivated to show the league's nine members who are joining the new league to not look down on them since they are not considered among the "like-minded" institutions.

A shining example is Bluefield, the conference's only winless team but one that lost to Fairmont State by 10, Alderson-Broaddus by three, Concord by four, Charleston by 10 and Wheeling Jesuit by four.

Pitt Johnstown and Seton Hill are heading to the powerful Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference - long the football big brother of the WVC. UPJ and Seton Hill are feeling the pressure of switching leagues on a positive note.

Zimmerman hasn't lost his energy, and he's one of the veterans of the league, but there are enough coaches out there who feel they have something to prove.

With winning comes attention and with attention come jobs for the multiple coaches aspiring to move to the Division I ranks.

* Downey is 40 years old, but in his third season with the Golden Eagles, who already have a NCAA Division II postseason berth (2011-12). The former UC player hasn't reached his ceiling and has a Division I job in his future.

* Former WVU assistant Jerrod Calhoun is in his first season at Fairmont State, the team that received the only first-place vote West Liberty didn't get in the WVC preseason coaches' poll. After learning under Bob Huggins, he's on the fast track to a Division I coaching career.

* Patrick Beilein, who is in his first season at W.Va. Wesleyan, will receive plenty of interest at the Division I ranks. He has the engaging personality of his father - Michigan coach and former WVU head coach John Beilein - and it's only a matter of when, not if, he gets a Division I job.

* Glenville State's Stephen Dye has assembled an all-star coaching staff featuring longtime conference head coach Bill Lilly and former WVU players Joe Mazzulla and Rob Summers.

* Concord's Kent McBride graduated from the school in 2006 - he's not 30 years old - and is in his "dream job."

* Wheeling Jesuit's Danny Sancomb is a former all-conference player for the Cardinals and guided his team to an NCAA Division II tournament victory last year over Charleston.

At the writing of this column, West Liberty maintained its lead at the top of the league standings, but it is becoming a tenuous lead.

Despite the Hilltoppers doing something last year that was surprising, according to Crutchfield, they should be better equipped to handle the rigors of a demanding WVC season.

However, this team isn't as good as last year's West Liberty squad. You read that correctly - not as good - despite being ranked at the top of the NCAA Division II ranks all season until this week.

They lead the nation in points per game at 109.6 and hold opponents to 80.2, but their last five games have resulted in one loss and four victories by an average of seven points.

Their post defense is vulnerable, and teams have deciphered their press, which must work for the Hilltoppers to get runouts, easy baskets and rapid double-digit leads - a staple of their success no matter how many 3-pointers they launch and make at a 45-percent rate.

Putting teams away is not a characteristic of the 2012-13 Hilltoppers, who some view as close to invincible in the WVC.

It's a fact that a team's character is often revealed in how it handles close games, which West Liberty has done in a more than admirable way.

During the Hilltoppers' walk-through prior to their game at Charleston, Crutchfield - whom I knew from my two-year stint as a junior high basketball player at Cameron (1979-81) when he was the school's varsity boys coach - told me the reason for the closer games is that the conference is better.

I'll go a step further and declare that it's the coaching that has improved even more than the players, many of whom are Division I transfers.

Whether or not West Liberty stands alone at the top of the WVC when the league's last season-ending tournament concludes in March is anybody's guess.

Quite frankly, it doesn't really matter.

Last year, four teams earned a spot in the Atlantic Region Tournament at West Liberty. Right now, four of the top five teams have at least 10 victories each and a combined winning percentage of .700.

We will likely see four again after a wild and crazy week at the Charleston Civic Center beginning late next month.

It'll be a pretty good way for small college fans to say good-bye to the WVC.

Contact Assistant Sports Editor Rich Stevens at richstevens@dailymail.com or 304-348-4837.


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