The West Liberty University men's basketball team may be competing in a new conference, but it's just like old times for the Hilltoppers ... ridiculous scoring, a fifth consecutive conference championship and an NCAA Division II Top 10 ranking.
This year, however, was a little different.
"It's definitely different," junior guard C.J. Hester said. "Coming in as a freshman, we had two years to spend together so we had a lot of team chemistry. This year we lost three of our key seniors. We just had to adjust, kind of find our identity again.
"We had the same rotation for two years so we were very comfortable with each other. This year our team chemistry was just off a little bit starting out so we definitely had to work and build our team back together again."
It didn't take long for the Hilltoppers to rebuild and take their usual place atop the standings.
West Liberty left the now-defunct West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and formed the Mountain East Conference with most of the previous WVIAC members and newcomers Virginia Wise, Notre Dame (Ohio) and Urbana.
The Hilltoppers clinched a fifth consecutive conference championship Feb. 13 against Shepherd with four regular-season games still to play, but hit a speed bump two nights later with a 93-81 upset at Fairmont State, just their second loss of the season.
"Coming into the season, after losing the national player of the year in Alex Falk and two other starters in Tim Hausfeld and Chris Morrow, both 1,000-point scorers, I felt if we would win the championship this year it would be on the last night on a buzzer-beater," coach Jim Crutchfield said. "I never anticipated winning it with so many games left.
"I know there were a couple [championships] that we clinched with a few games to go, but we never clinched one this early with so many big games in front of us. It almost seems like you don't even want to celebrate."
Fairmont State gave West Liberty little time to savor its championship.
The Hilltoppers missed 16 of their first 19 shots in the second half and were never able to recover against the Falcons. It was just the second time since the 2008-09 season that they have lost more than one conference game in a season.
"No one likes to lose, we take losing very hard down here," said Hester, a graduate of West Mifflin Area High School who was just recently named Capital One NCAA Division II Academic All-American for the second time. "We've had so much success here that losing kind of shocks everyone.
"In a way it opened our eyes, noticing what we need to work on and we really took the next couple of days very seriously so we don't make the same mistakes we did before."
The Hilltoppers, who dropped from No. 2 in the national rankings to No. 6 after the loss, bounced right back with victories against West Virginia Wesleyan Feb. 20 and Saturday against Glenville State, with Hester leading the way.
Hester, already a 1,000-point scorer, poured in a career-high 34 points at Glenville, hitting 13 of 14 shots including a school-record 7-for-7 3-pointers, pulled down eight rebounds and had three steals as the Hilltoppers improved to 23-2 overall, 19-2 in the MEC. For his effort, Hester was named MEC player of the week on Monday.
"C.J. is the ultimate hard-working, blue-collar player," Crutchfield said. "He comes to every game undersized to who he's guarding. He's a great kid to coach because he plays hard every practice, every game. He gives it everything he has and he's a warrior. That's kind of the role he has here."
Despite being undersized for his position at 6 feet 4, Hester is the leading rebounder at West Liberty at 8.2 per game, is second-leading scorer at 14.4, leads the team in field-goal percentage (.609) and is third in steals with 35.
"I've always had a knack for rebounding," Hester said. "I read a lot of the balls, kind of guess where the ball is going to come off the rim. I've had the mentality that if the ball is going up every shot is going to be missed and I try to get every rebound. If it's missed, I want to grab it."
As a team, in addition to leading NCAA Division II in scoring once again at 105.9 points per game, the Hilltoppers rank in the top five in the country in 10 categories.
Also helping the Hilltoppers compete at breakneck speed from the WPIAL are starting forward Mike Lamberti, a 6-5 forward from South Fayette, and 6-1 guard Jeff Yunetz, a senior from Greater Latrobe.
Lamberti, who is roommates with Hester, averages 5.5 points and 3.6 rebounds per game.
"Mike's role has changed a little bit in that we needed a guy who could come in with some speed who is tough and really hustle for us and be aggressive defensively and kind of shake the game up a little bit," Crutchfield said. "That's Mike's new role and he's doing a good job at it.
"He has physically become a force on the court. He is now bigger and stronger than he was in high school, he's faster, jumps a little higher. He doesn't get pushed around at all, he can push other people around."
With an average scoring margin of 22.5 points, which ranks second in Division II, it is the Hilltoppers who have been pushing people around. And with one regular-season game remaining -- Saturday at Ohio County rival Wheeling Jesuit -- and a No. 1 Atlantic Region ranking in place, the table is set for a fourth Elite Eight appearance in a row and third trip to the Final Four.
"We have our work cut out for us," Crutchfield said. "It's a situation where we're going to get into the regional, either hosting or traveling. I'm looking around the region and there's going to be eight good teams there and you could lose to any of them or you could beat any of them.
"At this point in time we're trying to close out the season. There is so much still in front of us, we have the conference tournament yet. The good part is we've padded our record with enough wins that we're a lock to get into the region. That's kind of a comfort zone for us ... no matter where it's played, we're going to be there."
Rick Davis: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3789.