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Rich Stevens: Shouldn't more schools follow West Liberty's lead?

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Some - most, actually - say West Liberty University men's basketball coach Jim Crutchfield bucks the trend by winning on a regular basis with high school players.

It's not shocking if everybody does it.

That's just it, few others do.

Crutchfield has relied almost solely on high school players to develop one of the nation's top small-college programs.

He understands the concept that it's hard to win with just high school kids, but also acknowledges what West Liberty has achieved doing just that.

The WVC had been a basketball conference until its demise last spring, and the MEC is a basketball conference until further notice.

The parity in the league has helped that cause.

In fact, only 18 times in 66 basketball seasons (since 1947 when regular season and tournament results became available) had a team won the WVC regular season and conference titles in the same season.

Coach Jayson Gee guided the University of Charleston to the 2000-01 regular season and tournament titles, marking the last time anybody other than West Liberty achieved what, historically, has been a rarity. West Liberty won both the last three years of the WVC's existence.

It's impossible to compare generations with the advent of the 3-point shot and the evolution of the game, but West Liberty's run is surpassed only by that of Fairmont State's almost 40 years ago. Under Coach Joe Retton, the Falcons are the only team in league history to win four consecutive regular season and tournament titles (1973-76). West Liberty is looking to match that feat this season.

Although Retton and the 57-year-old Crutchfield don't know one another, it just so happens that Crutchfield is a native of Clarksburg, a stone's throw from Fairmont.

Crutchfield isn't exactly a history buff, but he knows how to count to 1,000 (he taught math during his time at Cameron High School from 1980-1989). At the end of last season he had three players wrap up their eligibility as 1,000-point scorers - Chris Morrow, Tim Hausfeld and Division II Player of the Year Alex Falk - and the Hilltoppers were 138-9 in their four seasons at West Liberty.

"I'd like to think we're in the middle of (the history), as opposed to the end of it," Crutchfield said. "But, no, we don't think about it."

Here are some stats to chew on:

  • West Liberty has won at least 30 games the last three years with two trips to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight and one to the Final Four.
  • Four-year players Corey Pelle (2007-11) and Falk (2009-13) were first team All-America selections and Falk was the 2012-13 Division II Player of the Year.
  • West Liberty was 4-23 during the 2003-04 season - the year before Crutchfield became head coach. The next season, Crutchfield began his current string of consecutive seasons with at least 21 victories.
  • West Liberty led Division II in points per game the last three years, after finishing second in 2009-10. It also led every other season since 2005-06.
  • The Hilltoppers were No. 1 in the nation in scoring last season (102.8 points per game) and finished 251st out of 286 teams in scoring defense, but had the nation's widest average margin of victory (24.1 ppg).
  • The current roster has two transfers, both of whom played for Scott Aronhalt at Zanesville (Ohio) - senior Cedric Harris and freshman Zak Kirkbride. Harris spent one season at Wheeling Jesuit, being named WVC Freshman of the Year before spending two years at Ohio State. Kirkbride spent one season at a prep school - Fishburne Military School - and came to West Liberty as a freshman this year.
  • Crutchfield has had only one Division I or junior college transfer suit up since taking over at West Liberty in 2004. Jordan Fee transferred to West Liberty in 2010 from the University of Detroit. He played in 47 games for West Liberty, averaging 5.2 minutes per contest.
  • Crutchfield isn't opposed to bringing in Division I or junior college transfers, but is clearly focused on not rocking the boat. He sought some help for his program this past recruiting season but didn't find anybody that would be a good fit. He knows what happens off the court is as important as what happens on it.

    We know how that can turn out.

    With no help on the way and youth being as important to the Hilltoppers' success as anything else, I immediately expected lack of depth to be West Liberty's shortcoming. Harris told me "everybody on the team" can contribute.

    Fair enough.

    There are two areas that West Liberty's success is best measured - forced turnovers and 3-pointers.

    Through five games this season, the Hilltoppers have forced 115 turnovers - an average of 23.

    West Liberty is 79-183 on 3-pointers, giving the Hilltoppers more through five games than they had during the same time the last four seasons with the exception of 2010-11 when they were an astonishing 92-183 through five contests. The Hilltoppers set a school record for 3-pointers with 29 against Point Park (Pa.) last week.

    I've searched for a reason that the MEC's inaugural season will result in anything other than a West Liberty regular season and tournament title and have come up with nothing.

    While other league programs are building through transfers and falling short, the Hilltoppers chug along with high school players who might not even have been the best in their respective prep programs.

    Until somebody proves otherwise, the Hilltoppers are the favorites - even heavy favorites - to win the MEC.

    That tells me it's about time somebody else try this strange philosophy of recruiting high school players.

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


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