Shepherd vs. West Liberty: Quality basketball
Real evidence of Shepherd’s best basketball season in years and years can be seen in its two wins in the Porreco Cup tournament in Erie, Pa. And the 9-1 record it achieved in the pre-Christmas portion of its schedule.
Real evidence of the scope and range of where this season could take the Rams is just days away.
When the unbeaten and No. 1-ranked (in the NCAA Division II ratings) West Liberty Hilltoppers visit the Butcher Center on Thursday, Jan. 9, it could be the most important game in literal decades for any Shepherd team.
Despite early-season injuries to both Logan Holloman and Skyler Roman, Shepherd has lost only one time in its first 10 games that took it through December and into the 2014 portion of its schedule.
West Liberty, the strong-man of the WVIAC and now the Mountain East Conference, has rolled right along with another series of 100-point games that have left it atop the latest NCAA Division II polls.
After a visit to the 2013 Final Four, the Hilltoppers have rewarded themselves with a two-game visit to Puerto Rico, where neither of its wins was ever close.
Like Shepherd, the Hilltoppers are unbeaten in their newly adopted Mountain East Conference surroundings. Shepherd’s lone loss in its first 10 games came in the tournament it hosted to begin the 2013-14 season. And since that trouble against Slippery Rock, the Rams have reeled off nine straight wins to gain the interest of some of the voters that cast ballots in the NCAA Division II ratings polls.
After several consecutive 30-win seasons, West Liberty already has the interest of those same voters, who have graded the Hilltoppers and found them to be the best team in the country.
When both Shepherd and West Liberty were in the WVIAC last season, the two teams met at the Butcher Center and staged a fast-paced sprint-fest where the Hilltoppers were just a little more point-happy and won 114-109.
Without Holloman and redshirt freshman Roman, Shepherd has usually tried to hold fast with a basic player rotation that features just six players.
The starters have been guards Brantley Osborne and Austin Cunningham, forwards Morgan McDonald, Naim Muhammad and Kevin Jones. The versatile sixth man has been Marcus Pilgrim. Pilgrim was often a starter last season.
West Liberty usually plays at least 10 men who get 10 minutes or more court time.
To describe West Liberty basketball as break-neck or racehorse would be like describing LeBron James as having a bit of basketball savvy and skill.
The Hilltopper style is branded with a never-stop-running, white-hot pace that fast breaks even after an opponent scores.
“Get the ball out and go,” is the dictate of the Hilltoppers. “Run it down their collective throats if you can”.
If the opponent scores, it better not give a self-satisfied smile and lope back on defense. West Liberty in-bounds the ball and scatters to the offensive end, often scoring a layup in a few seconds after its opponent’s points.
Recent West Liberty teams have averaged nearly 100 points a game. And they all have won at least 30 times after adding the regular season total to the WVIAC tournament and NCAA Division II tournament wins.
Shepherd has been resilient if nothing else. After losing two of its first seven players in its skimpy player rotation to early-season injuries, the Rams have managed well enough to lose just once.
Osborne has been a consistent scorer from Game One. McDonald had the fewest points after about six games, but he was the Porreco Cup Tournament’s Most Valuable Player after scoring and rebounding with a flourish in Erie.
Cunningham could be a more consistent scorer, but his full-steam-ahead style of play generally makes him one of the more effective players on the floor on any given night. Muhammad is the quiet freshman, whose consistent contributions draw little notice until the box score is examined and he has scored 12 points and claimed six rebounds.
Jones became a starter after Holloman was injured in a fall in only the second game of the season. Holloman didn’t return to any games before the Christmas and semester break took hold. Roman suffered a leg injury just one game after Holloman fell, and he hasn’t been back, either.
Wade Walker became the virtual seventh man after the losses of Holloman and Roman.
The Shepherd vs.West Liberty game has the potential to be one of the best games ever played at the Butcher Center.
Two quality teams.
One ranked No. 1 in the country.
And Shepherd enjoying the home court advantage and a long winning streak.