The West Liberty University men's basketball team might as well replace the numbers on the back of their black and gold jerseys with bulls-eyes this winter as Coach Jim Crutchfield's Hilltoppers enter the season ranked No. 1 in every NCAA Division II national poll.
West Liberty returns all five starters and the top eight scorers from last year's 32-3 squad that claimed its second straight Atlantic Region title and third consecutive West Virginia Conference championship.
"We certainly appreciate the positive attention for our program and the university," said Crutchfield, who now leads all NCAA men's basketball coaches in career winning percentage (207-43, .828), "but there are more than 300 NCAA Division II teams out there and right now, every one of them is 0-0. You still have to prove it on the court."
It's not hard to see why Crutchfield and his Hilltoppers have been installed as the preseason pick to become the first WVIAC team ever to win a men's national basketball title.
A pair of 1,000-point scorers - All-America senior guard Alex Falk (18.0 ppg.) and All-WVIAC junior backcourter Cedric Harris (15.8 ppg., 5.5 apg.) - lead the point parade but they've got plenty of help.
Sophomore wing C.J. Hester (14.4 ppg., 8.4 rpg.) was the 2012 WVIAC Freshman of the Year with two more double-figure senior scorers - 5-foot-8 sharpshooter Tim Hausfeld (12.3 ppg.) and 6-6 forward Chris Morrow (12.9 ppg. 5.8 rpg.) - rounding out the returning starters.
Sophomore guard Shawn Dyer (11.5 ppg.) came off the bench to earn a spot on the WVIAC All-Freshman Team while junior forwards Keene Cockburn (8.1 ppg., 4.3 rpg.) and Nick Brown (7.9 ppg., 3.7 rpg.) combined for 22 double-figure scoring games. Junior guard Jeff Yunetz (2.2 ppg.) adds another perimeter threat.
Joining the mix are redshirt freshmen Bubby Goodwin and Mike Lamberti, adding even more firepower to a team that has averaged more than 100 points a game for Crutchfield's 8-year run.
With such a veteran roster, recruiting was a priority and Crutchfield appears to have landed a bumper crop of incoming freshmen.
Seger Bonifant is a 6-7 All-Ohio wing who led Hiland to back-to-back Ohio Division IV titles. Devon Hoehn, a 6-0 guard, was the MSAC Player of the Year at Parkersburg (W.Va.) High School, while Torin Wetzel is a 6-7 guard who earned all-state honors at St. Mary's High School in Monroe, Mich. Also in the fold is 6-4 Tanner Stoffer, a walk-on from the WLU golf team who was an All-Ohio guard at Ridgewood High School.
"We've had a lot of success with redshirting freshmen and giving them that extra year to develop," Crutchfield said, "but we take it on a case-by-case basis. That decision is driven by what's best for the team and what's best for the student-athlete."
Former Bethany head coach Aaron Huffman and ex-Hilltopper standout Ben Howlett return as Crutchfield's assistants.