WEST LIBERTY - Almost every year at this time the same question appears: can the West Liberty men's basketball team continue to fly in rarefied air despite the loss of a terrific senior class? The Hilltoppers, who have qualified for the Elite 8 three straight times and advanced to the Final Four twice, including last season, graduated Division II National Player of the Year Alex Falk and 1,000-point scorers Chris Morrow and Tim Hausfeld.
Add a new conference - the Mountain East - into the equation and it didn't seem too far fetched to believe this might be the year Coach Jim Crutchfield's program took a step back, no matter how far. Well, WLU is again leading the country in scoring at more than 115 points per-game, has shot out to a 12-0 start and is again ranked No. 1 nationally following Saturday's 108-81 victory against West Virginia Wesleyan at the ASRC.
Oh, and about the conference switch being an issue? The Toppers are 8-0 in league play and laid a 120-89 slammer on their closest competition, second-place Shepherd - on the road. Wheeling native Justin Namolik, a former all-stater at Wheeling Park and the Rams' coach, is said to be pattering his club after Crutchfield's. That's a great idea in theory, but the results indicate Shepherd is still mountains away from the Hilltoppers.
The recipe certainly hasn't changed. West Liberty comes at you with a full-court press for 40 minutes, not letting up no matter the score. Few - only the nation's elite - have been able to keep up.
Again all five starters - Seger Bonifant (16.5), Cedric Harris (14.9), Keene Cockburn (14.7), Shawn Dyer (14.5) and C.J. Hester (13.9) - are averaging double figures in points. Bubby Goodwin, a former Park star, and Devin Hoehn are averaging 14.1 and 12.3 off the bench as the Toppers are winning by a ridiculous 33.2 points an outing.
Perhaps the most scary part of this season's team is its depth. Crutchfield generally doesn't like to go more than about eight deep, but nine players are averaging at least 15 minutes per game. None plays more than Bonifant at 26.2 a night.
I predicted prior to the season that West Liberty would have no trouble gaining a fifth straight conference crown, and there's no reason to back off that. However, I admit there was belief this club might just be the one that didn't live up to what have become astronomical expectations.
If you can find a hotel in Evansville, Ind., that will give refunds - always have to play it safe - it might be a good idea to pencil in reservations for March 26-29. There's a better than average chance the Hilltoppers will be there, representing the Atlantic Region in the Elite Eight once again.
The Ohio Valley Athletic Conference recently released its classifications for the 2014-15 school year, and there were some notable changes.
For starters, all five classes are evenly broken up into 10 schools, which obviously means some movement has occurred.
Going up a class are Steubenville and Weir, which are now are part of Class 5A, as well as River, which went from 2A to 3A. Going in the other direction are Steubenville Catholic, which will reside in Class 2A, as well as Beaver Local and Edison, both of whom dropped from 5A to 4A.
Shawn Rine can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org