By Matt Welch
Times West Virginian
If there’s an opponent that Fairmont State University’s men’s basketball team knows well, it’s West Liberty.
In coach Jerrod Calhoun’s young tenure at Fairmont State (10-4, 5-3 MEC), his Falcons have yet to overcome the Hilltoppers. Of last season’s nine losses, four came at the hands of West Liberty, a team that has shown national dominance in past seasons. But knowing the team so well could be an advantage for the Falcons, when they travel to play West Liberty today at 4 p.m. at the ARSC, Calhoun said.
“West Liberty is a well-oiled machine. We saw them four times last year, so we know how they play. I think everybody in the league knows how they play. They're going to try to outscore, you so you've really got to play a lot of defense, especially on the road,” Calhoun said of the challenge that awaits his team.
West Liberty (13-0, 9-0 MEC) is indeed comparable to a well-oiled machine in the sense that the Hilltoppers very rarely commit damaging mistakes.
So far this season, the No. 1-ranked Hilltoppers are outscoring their opponents by 29.3 points per game, averaging 113.7 points per game. They’re also plus 10.5 in turnovers and average 12.3 steals per game, not to mention that they’re shooting 50.3 percent from the floor as a team, including 42.8 percent from the 3-point line, making an average of 14.2 3s per game.
Calhoun and his Falcons know that there’s not just one guy on the team that can hurt them, but several. West Liberty has seven players averaging double figures on the year, something that Calhoun and the Falcons have been preparing for vigorously during practices.
“(Jim Crutchfield’s) got a lot of guys that can come in and play. He’s got 10 guys out of 12 on his roster that all shoot 40 percent or better. So he’s always got a guy who can shoot the ball,” Calhoun noted. “That’s probably the biggest thing that’s very hard as an opposing opponent to gameplan for. Usually you have one or two guys who can't shoot the ball, so you know you're going to play off those guys, but everyone on their team can score and they just keep coming after you.”
Leading the way for the Hilltoppers is Cedric Harris.
Harris, a 6-foot senior guard, is averaging 15.5 points and 6.3 assists per game. Calhoun said if there’s one guy he wants to keep his eye on, it’s Harris.
“The guy I love is Cedric Harris. He's a senior and has been there the past few seasons. Ced is a great player, and he always seems to turn it up in big games,” he said. “He’s a gamer.”
From there, West Liberty has weapons in Kene Cockburn (15.2 ppg), Seger Bonifant (14.9 ppg), CJ Hester (14.7 ppg, 8.0 rebounds per game), Shawn Dyer (13.2 ppg), Devin Hoehn (13.0 ppg) and Kelvin Goodwin (12.9 ppg) all in double figures.
Calhoun, though, pointed to the Falcons’ non-conference schedule to prove that his team can handle West Liberty.
“Our non-confidence schedule speaks for itself. I've said all along I think it’s the best in the conference,” Calhoun explained. “If you want to be a great program, you’ve got to play great programs instead of beating up on NAIA teams that aren't that great. We've challenged a young team by playing teams like Bellarmine, Bowie State, Virginia State and now West Liberty.”
For the Falcons to match up, they’ve been working on fast-paced defensive strategies, perfecting their own offense, limiting turnovers and getting healthy.
“The first thing we’re trying to do is get healthy. Ke'Chaun Lewis looks like he’ll play, but we're still waiting word on a couple of our other guys,” Calhoun said. “The practices have been very, very tough with so many injuries, so we’re trying to do the best we can with what we’ve got.”
Getting Lewis back will help put bodies on the floor for the Falcons, but with West Liberty’s fast-paced offense, finding fresh legs through the injuries that FSU has will be the challenge.
“We’ll just have to see what bodies we have. Right now I don't know who’s going to play. It seems like every day someone’s in the doctor’s,” Calhoun said. “We’ve had a lot of bad breaks, but we’ve told our kids, when adversity strikes you’ve got to go down fighting, and hopefully they learned that from the last loss we can't sit around and worry about injuries anymore. When it’s time to play, whoever is in uniform has to step up and play hard.”
To avoid losing back-to-back games for the first time this season, the Falcons will expect players like Stevie Browning, who is averaging a team-high 18.4 points per game, to continue to step up. The Falcons will also turn to the excellent play of Thomas Wimbush. The redshirt freshman is averaging 15.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game in his last five contests.
NOTES: The Lady Falcons (6-5, 4-4 MEC) will play West Liberty (8-7, 5-4 MEC) right before the men’s game at 2 p.m. at the ARSC at West Liberty. ... Makenzie White leads FSU, averaging 14.9 points per game this season, while four other Falcons are in double digits. ... Hailey Garrett is averaging 12.4 points and 8.3 rebounds per game for the Falcons. ... Liz Flowers leads the Lady Hilltoppers with 18.3 points per game.
Email Matt Welch at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @MattWelch_TWV.