WEST LIBERTY - Jim Crutchfield's West Liberty men lost four seniors who combined for nearly 6,000 career points and led the Hilltoppers to a 33-1 record and a spot in the NCAA Division II Final Four a season ago.
Just one starter returns.
So ... Sweet 16?
The coach laughed.
''All those rumors about me leaving, maybe we should have left,'' he joked while looking up at a bar that has certainly been raised. ''I don't know how we compare with other teams at this time.''
Well, those who do the preseason polls think it's favorably. West Liberty opens the season this afternoon against East Stroudsburg ranked No. 6 in the country and as the favorite to win a third straight West Virginia Conference title.
''I'm kinda stunned,'' Crutchfield said. ''I assumed that no one would have us ranked.''
Evidently, voters noticed Crutchfield has won 81 of every 100 games he's coached and figured he's got some idea what he's doing, even without Jordan Fortney, Barry Shetzer, John Wolosinczuk and Corey Pelle, along with assistant coach Eric Bovaird.
''When I look at the numbers, it still surprises me,'' Crutchfield said. ''We have some people up here that are pretty good with statistics. Every time I hear them, they remind me - we have won a lot of games (175); we haven't lost many (40).''
The lone returning starter is junior Alex Falk, a player whose RPMs push the tac to its limits.
''His value up here is incredible,'' Crutchfield said. ''We try to preach how to play hard and overachieve. With him here, we don't have to tell them. They see it live and in front of them.''
Might Falk turn himself into an all-league player this season?
''I don't know,'' Crutchfield said, ''but I do know this. I wouldn't trade him for anybody in the conference right now.''
Others back who saw significant time are 6-foot-6 junior Chris Morrow, 5-7 guard Tim Hausfeld, sophomore Mark Shadowens, and redshirt sophomore Nick Brown. Look up their best individual performances from a season ago, they all enjoyed them when the lights shone brightest.
Particularly Morrow, who came off the bench to score 20 points in the NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional Championship with an All-American in his mustache most of the way.
Hausfeld scored 32 points against Wheeling Jesuit in front of packed ASRC in which half of his attempts came from Oglebay.
''It's not like we lost everybody that played,'' Crutchfield said.
There's a pair of freshmen to keep an eye on in C.J. Hester (6-4, 200) and Mike Lamberti (6-5, 195), though Lamberti is out with an injured knee at the moment.
Shawn Dyer is a 6-foot guard who redshirted last season but has a pretty good idea of what Crutchfield's chaotic system entails.
The wild card here is Cedric Harris, who a few years ago was the WVC Freshman of the Year while playing for Wheeling Jesuit. In those days, he was playing a pro-style point guard position and doing it well.
That doesn't exist at West Liberty, where Harris has three seasons of eligibility remaining.
''Everybody else is kinda home-schooled,'' Crutchfield said. ''He's making adjustments right now. Slowly but surely, he's becoming a system player for us. He's probably surrounded by a lot more scorers (than he was at WJU). He's just one of many guys who can score here. He's going to score 20 on any given day, others he won't.''
Ben Howlett, a guy Crutchfield says fit his system better than anyone he's ever recruited to it, returns to the school as an assistant coach, along with Aaron Huffman, a one-time WLU women's assistant and head men's coach at Bethany College.
''He knows what he's doing,'' Crutchfield said of Howlett. ''He spent a year as a student assistant and was here when a few of these guys came in. They were excited about him coming back. He's a hard-working guy, and he knows basketball.''
Of Huffman, the coach said: ''His wealth of basketball and work ethic has been very valuable to us, too.''
With that, last season, was last year, though the memories will never truly fade. It was the sports story of the year in the Ohio Valley, if not the decade - and beyond.
''It was fun,'' Crutchfield said. ''The hard part was trying to enjoy it and not get caught too much in the pressure. It's something they, and I, will feel good about the rest of our lives. It made you feel good. It will diminish but it won't ever go away ... It makes you think we had a pretty good team.''
They're hoping for another. Despite this:
''Last year, we were ready to play from the first day of practice,'' Crutchfield said.''We open (today), I feel like I wish I had more time.''
Jim Elliott can be reached via e-mail at: email@example.com