MEC basketball: Shepherd coach follows West Liberty blueprint
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Shepherd University Coach Justin Namolik knows all about West Liberty.
Namolik graduated in 1995 from Wheeling Park High School - less than 10 miles from the West Liberty campus.
He also has something in common with West Liberty Coach Jim Crutchfield - building his program without many junior college or Division I transfers.
Chad Moore, a 2012-13 All-American, was a four-year player as are current seniors Marcus Pilgrim and Brantley Osborne. Junior guard Austin Cunningham is a transfer from Ohio Valley College and senior Kevin Jones is in his second season after playing at Indiana (Pa.). Logan Holloman, a former Hedgesville standout, played at Liberty University.
There are six freshmen on the Shepherd roster, as well as two sophomores and two juniors among the 14 roster spots.
"I've recruited 28 kids to Shepherd and we retained 24 of them," said Namolik, whose Rams are tied with West Liberty at the top of the Mountain East Conference with a 4-0 league mark. "It's not like we don't look for it. I feel if we do take a transfer he has to be the right fit for our program."
Shepherd has won nine of its first 10 games and is on an eight-game winning streak after Saturday's overtime victory against Winston-Salem State.
Then again, the Rams opened last season with an 8-2 record and won just seven of its last 17 games, stumbling to the No. 8 seed in the last West Virginia Conference Tournament and losing to Glenville at home in the first round.
The Rams are off to another hot start to this season.
Shepherd went unbeaten in its own tip-off event - the Clarion Hotel Conference Challenge - as well as the Wolf's Bus Lines Classic in Shippensburg and the Porreco Cup at Gannon University.
Osborne averages 21.3 points, 4.6 assists and 4.4 rebounds for the Rams, while Cunningham is at 15.8 points, 4.6 assists and 4.4 rebounds. Kevin Jones (15.8), former Musselman star Morgan McDonald (11.6) and Naim Muhammad (10.8) average in double figures.
"It starts with the leadership of our captains," Namolik said. (Brantley) Osborne, (Marcus) Pilgrim and (Logan) Holloman are high-energy guys, are the hardest workers in practice and do a good job of holding their teammates accountable. The guys respond to them."
Shepherd is off until Jan. 4 when the Rams have two road games in three days against Notre Dame (Jan. 4) and Urbana (Jan. 6) prior to a visit to West Liberty on Jan. 9.
The Hilltoppers are the WVC's dominant program, winning the last four regular season championships. West Liberty is No. 1 in the National Association of Basketball Coaches' NCAA Division II Poll and is poised to win the inaugural MEC title.
Add Namolik to the list of coaches who want to dethrone West Liberty, but he admits there's a fine line between that quest and overthinking it.
"Have we done some things that would help us against West Lib? I would say yes," Namolik said. "Everything we do can't be geared toward beating them. They haven't lost many games the past few years and I don't want to get consumed by that."
FAIRMONT STATE hoped to challenge for the MEC title this season, but the Falcons' quest has been derailed somewhat with a hand injury to forward Brendan Cooper.
The 6-foot-7 senior is expected to be out up to six weeks, which could sideline the Parma, Ohio native until mid-January.
The Falcons are 4-1 with Cooper and 2-2 without him, including a 75-71 loss at Eddie King Gym. Fairmont State's two victories without Cooper, who averaged 14 points and 9.7 rebounds in five games, came against NAIA Division I WVU Tech and 1-4 W.Va. State.
WEST VIRGINIA State has lost four consecutive games, but they have come against four of the MEC's top five teams - Wheeling Jesuit (87-71), West Liberty (128-69), Shepherd (89-83) and Fairmont State (107-89). The Cardinals, Hilltoppers, Rams and Falcons have a combined 27-5 record.
After two meetings against Davis & Elkins (Sunday) and Bluefield State (Wednesday) - former league members with State - the Yellow Jackets get back into MEC action on Jan. 4 at Glenville.
NOTRE DAME has only three victories in nine games, despite having four of the league's top seven scorers. Sophomore Tyree Gaiter (21.0 points per game), junior Lawrence DeArmond (19.9) and senior Jarvis Huntley (18.8) combined to averaged 59.6 points per game. The Falcons average 86.9 points per game, but are next-to-last in the MEC by giving up 88 points a contest.
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Rich Stevens at email@example.com or 304-348-4837.