January 13, 2014 • From the BenchWinning Hoops

How Jim Crutchfield created one of basketball’s most explosive offenses at West Liberty

by Kevin Hoffman, Managing Editor

There’s no telling what coaches might give to learn the secrets behind West Liberty’s high-octane offense, but none of it would matter. You can’t have them.

It’s not that men’s basketball coach Jim Crutchfield isn’t willing to help his colleagues. The problem is he has nothing to offer — no notes, diagrams, books or videos revealing his strategy for consistently hanging triple digits on the scoreboard.

The blueprint for Crutchfield’s offense exists in just one place. His head.

“I really don’t have anything on paper that represents West Liberty basketball at all, said Crutchfield. My only concern is these guys that play for me, and if they have an understanding of what we do, then I’m happy.”

In 2013, the Hilltoppers became just the second team in Division II history to average more than 100 points per game in four consecutive seasons. That streak ended this year, when West Liberty reached its first national championship in school history, losing to Central Missouri.

The Hilltoppers finished averaging 99.9 points per game.

West Liberty’s offense has become something of a marvel. Its approach is nowhere similar to Grinnell College, whose high-output offense depends on an abundance of 3-pointers while sacrificing defense.

Crutchfield’s players can bury opponents from the perimeter, but much of their success comes from maximizing possessions and using the dribble-drive to give shooters high-percentage looks. That’s not a concept foreign to college coaches, but the Hilltoppers seem to run it with such efficiency and precision that defenses are gradually left in its wake.

“The way we play, it’s aggressive offensively and it’s aggressive defensively, Crutchfield said. But we never talked about scoring a certain number of points. Our sole objective is to score more points than our opponents.”

West Liberty family

West Liberty University is in an isolated setting on the north side of Wheeling, W.Va. Junior guard C.J. Hester said basketball is king here, and in the days leading up to a game there’s an audible buzz around campus.

It’s hard to blame the students. West Liberty has won five straight conference titles, losing just 13 games over that time. They’re accustomed to winning, and under Crutchfield’s leadership the Hilltoppers have been as exciting as any other team in the nation, especially for the average fan who prefers scoring over staunch defense.

But it wasn’t just the team’s reputation that brought Hester to West Liberty. He was recruited by schools in all three divisions but was most impressed with Crutchfield and his staff. The winning tradition was just icing on the cake.

“They were down-to-earth guys, and they didn’t try to sell themselves to me — they tried to sell the school, the players and the program, Hester said. Once they invited me down for a visit, I saw that this community is unreal. If you walked into one of the rival games, this place is packed and everyone is talking about it for weeks. You’d think you were walking in to a Division I game.”

Assistant coach Aaron Huffman spent seven seasons leading the men’s basketball team at nearby Bethany College before joining Crutchfield’s staff. The intensity level at West Liberty is unlike anything he’s ever experienced as a coach, and he’s still impressed by the program’s efficiency.

“When I was at Bethany, we tried to push and attack and keep defenses on their toes, but here there’s no lull in the action, he said. We try to make it so there’s no lull in the action ever on both sides of the ball. There should be no time for the other team to look over at the coach and see what play they want to run.

“That’s the biggest difference, and it’s a huge one. It’s significant, and it’s one of the things that makes us unique.”

It all circles back to Crutchfield, a fearless innovator determined to leave his own imprint on the game and his team.

When he took over the program in 2004, the Hilltoppers were coming off a 4-23 season with little hope for immediate improvement. Crutchfield said his first crop of players weren’t overly talented or incredibly fast, but he wasn’t under intense pressure for a quick turnaround.

West Liberty would get one anyways.

Crutchfield won 21 games — earning the first of his five conference Coach of the Year awards — and led his team to an appearance in the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament’s championship game. Four freshmen started for the team that season, making Crutchfield’s success all the more impressive.

Those results made a resounding statement to fans and opponents, but more importantly it fostered a high level of trust within the program. Whatever it was going on inside Crutchfield’s mind, it was working.

“I had young guys that were successful and everybody was happy, so I’ve had the luxury of people buying into what I’ve said, Crutchfield said. It’s a lot easier to coach when people believe in you, and I think because we’ve won, I’m fortunate that players have believed in me.”

A unique approach

Crutchfield understood the odds going into his first season. He could have tried to lure junior college or Division I transfers to his program, but support from the administration made him comfortable in forging his own path.

Crutchfield believes if he had taken a “traditional approach” he only would have won six or seven games that year. Instead, he went against the grain, throwing constant pressure on opposing offenses and throwing them off of their game plans. Nobody was expecting much from a team that had won less than a handful of games the prior year, so his strategy caught opponents off guard.

“I’ve never been afraid to take chances, so I thought let’s go a little more extreme as far as what we can do with pressure, Crutchfield said. I think we surprised people. We played extreme, full-court pressure, an air-tight, match-up zone, and we were successful at it.”

That probably didn’t surprise those who knew him best. Huffman can still recall a moment years ago when he and Crutchfield were assistant coaches at West Liberty, pondering their futures. Crutchfield wondered out loud whether there was a way he could create a scheme that allowed for no breaks in the action, constantly pushing the pace and challenging opponents to keep up.

“He said, ‘You know how late in the game when a team is down by eight points and they press like crazy and the intensity is real high ‘” Huffman recalled. “I wonder if there is a way I could play that way for 40 minutes.”

“I don’t know, Huffman answered. Good luck with that.”

The Hilltoppers offense isn’t what you might expect. They don’t necessarily deploy a frantic attack that physically tests opponents. For Crutchfield, it’s about efficiency.

Observe a few of West Liberty’s most recent games and you’ll discover an offense that wastes little time creating space for open looks, often taking shots within the first 15 seconds of the possession clock.

And they don’t force bad shots. Before defenses get comfortable in their half-court sets, the Hilltoppers are already setting a screen for the dribble-drive, either scoring at the rim or kicking to an open perimeter shooter.

The goal is to maximize possessions, force defenders to quickly react and create intense pressure on opposing offenses. West Liberty often uses a full-court press from the opening tip, and teams that can’t handle it well find themselves in a hole early.

Ben Howlett has witnessed it from both ends. The third year assistant coach played under Crutchfield from 2005-09, ranking 11th all time on the school’s scoring list.

Howlett said the program was a perfect fit for him as a player. The system allows individuals to play to their strengths and it opens up the court. West Liberty, like a number of programs, prefers to recruit players that can do a little bit of everything, and Howlett said he fit right into the mold.

That expectation persists today, and coaches are careful to only bring in those who mesh with the program’s philosophy.

“The recruits know that this is the style we’re going to use and we’re not going to change it, Howlett said. This is the way we play. When you come here, you’ll be expected to play with intensity, trap and chase, and offensively look to push in transition.”

Unique preparation

Most would expect a team that maintains such a breakneck pace to spend a considerable amount of time conditioning during practice, but Howlett and Huffman said that just isn’t the case. Players believe the real magic takes place during the offseason.

Senior guard Cedric Harris estimates the team plays about 100 scrimmages, or five to six games a week, in preparation for the upcoming year. Players don’t take part in tedious drills or extreme weight lifting regimens, instead focusing much of their energy on doing what they love — playing the game of basketball.

The strategy is simple in nature, but the proof is in West Liberty’s remarkable winning percentage. By scrimmaging one another, the Hilltoppers grow accustomed to different playing styles, similar to what they’ll see during the season. They even make a point to constantly change teams and make different rules to test all aspects of their individual games.

“We have a lot of friends that play at different schools and they don’t take their open gyms very seriously, Hester said. But when we come in, it’s a competitive game and we keep track of who wins, who loses and by how many.

“On the court, we’re not friends. We’re very competitive and we want to beat each other, but the minute we walk off the court we’re the best of friends again.”

Those offseason workouts were critical in helping the Hilltoppers become one of the better communicating teams in college basketball. They learned each other’s tendencies and are familiar with their strengths and weaknesses, which translates directly into competition.

That’s another unique aspect of Crutchfield’s program. Players rarely need to look to the bench during play because they’re given so much freedom and trust to make their own decisions based off what was practiced. It’s part of what allows the Hilltoppers to push the pace so much.

“In practice, that’s when we do most of our communication, along with film sessions, Harris said. Coach gives us the opportunity to be ourselves and run the system how he wants it to be run.”

“Our chemistry is what allows us to be successful, Hester added. Sometimes Cedric will give me a look and I know exactly what he’s thinking. We trust each other.”

That chemistry doesn’t happen by accident, and the coaches at West Liberty take pride in how they’re able to develop players. Huffman said there are a number of players who started out as reserves, but as they grew up through the program they eventually earned all-conference honors.

None of that is possible without effort, and Crutchfield understands the substantial difference that can make in an athlete’s performance. Hester is just 6-foot-4, yet as a sophomore he led the team with 9.2 rebounds per game, grabbing 21 boards in one game alone.

Hester credits a lot of that success to the intense offense and movements that allow for gaps in the paint. He’s always enjoyed rebounding, and the way Crutchfield pushes players during practice to get after every loose ball reinforces that instinctive desire. At the same time, he’s more than capable of shooting from the perimeter, and it’s that versatility that often frustrates opponents.

“C.J. said he feels like a big guy in a small man’s body, and it’s that way for a lot of players we have here, Harris said. For them to be able to step out and shoot the 3 or post up, that creates a lot of opportunities for guys on this team.”

The relationship players have developed with Crutchfield is partly what drives them to fight so hard. Like any great coach he supports his players, pushes them to improve and trusts in their abilities on the court.

If there’s ever a moment where Crutchfield is not in control, you never see it. He’s not the wide-eyed coach screaming at players or officials from the bench, and you’ll never see doubt on his face in the closing minutes of a tight game. He has complete faith in his team, and players have bought into the system.

The result is a program on the cusp of its first national championship; one that narrowly escaped West Liberty’s grasp this spring. The loss was difficult for the Hilltoppers, made evident by the tears and looks of dejection moments after the game.

Crutchfield, in typical fashion, graciously praised the Central Missouri Mules, but this one hurt. However, if the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that West Liberty will always be back.

“Our guys played as hard as they could, Crutchfield said after the national title game. We base our program on playing with a lot of heart. It helps to win basketball games when you do that, but when you lose, it’s painful.

“You’ve put everything you have on the line.”