EAST STROUDSBURG, Pa. - Have you ever seen the look in the eye of a dog that has not eaten in nearly a week? It's the kind of scowl that lets whomever is around know that dinner, whatever that happens to be, is about to be consumed.
That's pretty much where the West Liberty men's basketball team stands heading into today's Atlantic Region quarterfinal against Glenville State at 2:30 p.m. at East Stroudsburg University's Koehler Fieldhouse. The Toppers haven't played since last Sunday night at the Charleston Civic Center, when they dropped a 63-61 decision to Charleston in the Mountain East Conference championship game, marking the first time in five years they have come home empty-handed.
Legendary Chicago Bulls assistant coach John Bach used to refer to his team's defense as "releasing the Dobermans." West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield is about to do just that when the Hilltoppers (26-3), the No. 2 seed in the tournament, tangle with the Pioneers (18-10), who are the seventh seed, for the third time this season.
Cedric Harris and West Liberty plan to attack in packs in the Atlantic Regional in Stroudsburg today.
"Personally, I take losing rough -- I don't take it too well at all,'' WLU guard-forward C.J. Hester said Friday. "I definitely feel like we have something to prove.
"We want to prove that we're still an elite program on the national level.''
Ok, then. Now they're not only hungry, but wounded. Would seem to be a pretty bad combination for Glenville State, which has already suffered 107-88 and 109-97 losses at the hands of West Liberty this season.
That made this week's game preparation pretty easy according to Hester, who was selected second team All-Atlantic Region earlier this week.
"We didn't even game prep because we know what they're going to do," he said. "We've kind of been playing each other a little chippy in practice, so we're anxious to get out on the court and see someone else.''
What the Toppers will see in the Pioneers is a long, athletic bunch that nearly took out MEC champion Charleston in the semifinals, falling, 74-72. Glenville State will try a tactic that many others have in order to shut down West Liberty's nation-best offense, which is using a zone defense, and in particular, a 1-3-1.
"Zones in general, they slow the game up," Hester said. "Playing against a zone really makes you work, but the way to counteract that is by shooting the ball well, and we have a lot of good shooters."
Koehler Fieldhouse could prove to be a monumental task for those West Liberty shooters. Hester compared it to a scaled-down version of Syracuse's Carrier Dome and sight-lines could be an issue during day games due to the large amount of windows on one side of the arena.
"It went well," Hester said of Friday's shootaround. "It was our normal day-to-day game preparation.
"It was a good chance to get familiar with the court and the arena."
West Liberty is led by Atlantic Region Player of the Year Cedric Harris, who averages 17.6 points, nearly six assists and a little more than four rebounds per game. Harris (2,121) is one of three Hilltoppers, joining Hester (1,354) and Shawn Dyer (1,206), who enter the contest having already scored 1,000 career points.
Coach Stephen Dye's Pioneers, who are making their first NCAA Tournament appearance, counter with second team all-region select Lamar Mallory, who averages nearly 19 points and 8.3 rebounds. Donte Morales scores at 16.4 clip and has a 40-point game to his credit, while Kevin Gray checks in at 14.4 points.
"They know what we're going to do and we know what they're going to do," Hester said. "To beat the same team three times in a season is very tough, let alone a team like Glenville."
No extra motivation is needed, however. It was a very long, quiet ride home from Charleston. But, Hester said, the team quickly put the defeat behind it.
"It was a tough loss, but we've got a bigger tournament ahead of us," he said. "More than anything we didn't play to our potential.
"We get a chance to come up here and show everyone what West Liberty basketball is all about."
Nah, that would be too easy.