WEST LIBERTY - The other day, I had a guy ask me what exactly is this tournament West Liberty's men and women are playing in this weekend.
My first thought was the answer should be common knowledge. But maybe it's not. Around here, unless the Hilltoppers or Wheeling Jesuit is in it, we tend to not even notice it's going on.
Anyway, I told the guy the Toppers are playing in the NCAA Tournament, Division II's version of the big dance. It's a 64-team field, just like the big boys. The winner of each of the eight regionals make up the Elite 8, with the top seed in each region serving as the host for the first three games. From there, each regional winner on the men's side meets up in the City of Firsts, Springfield, Mass., and they'll continue to play it off until someone wins. That winner is the national champion.
The final eight women's teams will meet in St. Joseph's, Mo.
So, yeah, it's pretty big.
''It's not hyped up that much so I'm not sure the average guy would know,'' said Hilltoppers coach Jim Crutchfield, who will take his top-ranked, unbeaten squad into action on its home court at 6 p.m. Saturday against Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Tournament runner-up Slippery Rock (21-10). ''It hasn't happened very often, maybe if we do it for a couple of years, they'll figure it out.''
On paper, West Liberty is the top team in the party. No other team in the entire field has as few as one loss. Just two have as few as two.
''When you get on the courts, none of that carries over,'' Crutchfield said. ''It's five guys lined up. We won conference, the conference tournament. That has no effect on what happens the next game. When that ball's tossed up, there's five guys going at it.''
Slippery Rock has three players who average double figures in points, led by 6-foot-5 senior Maron Brown, who also averages 10.4 rebounds.
Jabril Bailey, a 6-4 senior, averages 14.8 ppg., and Devin Taylor, a 6-5 junior, scores 12.6 points per game. The Rock had four players foul out in its last game, a 82-75 setback to IUP in the PSAC Tournament championship game. IUP was 49 of 62 from the free-throw line.
That's tough to wrap your head around - almost as tough as it is to realize West Liberty is the nation's lone unbeaten team at any level. The Hilltoppers have lost just three games the last two seasons, with their last setback coming against eventual national runner-up Indiana, Pa., March 16, 2010.
''They've got a good front line,'' Crutchfield said. ''Brown is very strong inside and he can come out and shoot the 3. That will be a good matchup with our frontline players. We're hoping the tempo of the game goes our way. They're more of a walk-up-the court, pound-it-inside type team.
West Liberty, the nation's highest scoring team, will counter with six players who average double figures in points, led by WVC, and Atlantic Region Player of the Year, Corey Pelle (16.4 ppg.). The others are Jordan Fortney (15.2), Alex Falk (12.9), Barry Shetzer (17.0), WVC Tournament Most Valuable Player John Wolosinczuk (12.6), and Tim Hausfeld, who comes off the bench to score 10.8 points per game.
Hilltoppers coach Lynn Ullom is taking his 11th team to the big dance, where they've combined to win one game (1-10).
''If I could change anything on my coaching resume, that would be it,'' he said. ''We have to do a better job or get some luck, but we just haven't done well in the NCAA Tournament.''
This will be the third time they'll play Millersville overall - all inside the tourney - and second consecutive season. The Marauders won last season's game, 66-50.
That was the only game in the Hilltoppers' last 82 that Tori Hansen failed to score in double figures.
''Jenni Robbins, that was probably the worst game of her life,'' Ullom said. ''Tori Hansen, probably the worst game of her life.''
Millersville lost four seniors off that team, but there's still plenty to worry about, including 6-foot-2 sophomore Aurielle Mosely, who averages 16.6 points and 12.6 rebounds per game - five on the offensive glass.
''They are unbelievably well coached,'' Ullom said. ''And they are just such a contrast to the way we play. They're such an athletic, physical team. And they're really good on the defensive end.''
If the Hilltoppers are going to make some noise, they'll do so without center Meghan Wiseman, who tore an ACL two weeks ago, and backup Natalie Burchfield, who tore hers in practice Wednesday.
Jim Elliott can be reached via e-mail at:firstname.lastname@example.org