Seldom seen Shepherd season could be rewarded
Leaf through the basketball records at Shepherd and you won’t find a 20-win season until you are back over 20 years when the 1992 team won the school’s only WVIAC tournament championship and had a 23-10 record.
Dig even deeper into the files of Rams’ basketball and you will eventually go all the way back to 1976 before finding the only time any Shepherd (Normal School, State Teachers College, College or University) ever was invited to an NAIA or NCAA Division II tournament.
The 1991-92 team was coached by Ron Gerlufsen and had tri-captains Rob Leavitt, Anthony McDonald and Rich York. That team finished third behind Charleston and Concord in the WVIAC’s regular season. But then it swept through four games in the conference tournament, beating West Liberty by 37 points, Fairmont by a 72-71 count, Concord in another down-to-the-wire finish (65-63) and then Alderson-Broaddus (78-69) in the championship game.
To this day, that is Shepherd’s only conference championship.
But even that team didn’t qualify for an NAIA or NCAA Division II tournament. Since Charleston and Coach Greg White had been the regular season champions, the Rams and the Golden Eagles had a best 2-of-3 playoff to see which team would qualify for the next tournament.
Charleston defeated the Rams, 58-55, in Charleston and then, 66-62, at the Butcher Center to receive the WVIAC’s only tournament berth.
In the 22 seasons since that accomplishment, no Shepherd team has won as many as 20 games in a season.
Shepherd’s lone visit to the NCAA Division II tournament came after the 1975-76 season when Coach Bob Starkey’s offensive-minded team rattled off long winning streaks to go 28-1 during a rousing regular season. After winning three games in the WVIAC tournament, the Rams fell to nemesis Fairmont in the championship game. Fairmont went to the NAIA national tournament. But Shepherd was also a part of the NCAA Division II ranks and was an at-large invitee to that tournament.
In the Division II tournament, the Rams defeated Glassboro State (NJ), 77-62, and Monmouth (NJ), 79-71, before falling to eventual national champion Scranton, 94-78.
That Starkey-coached team finished with a 33-3 overall record.
None of Shepherd’s teams in the past several decades has come close to qualifying for a national tournament.
While this year’s team is still a longshot of sorts to reach the Division II national tournament, it has done enough through the first 24 games to merit serious consideration.
It is the first Shepherd team since 1993 to win as many as 17 games. Among those 17 wins were victories over other national tournment contenders Charleston, Glenville and West Virginia Wesleyan from the Rams’ own league.
Shepherd won three of four games against PSAC schools, beating Mercyhurst, California and Shippensburg and losing to Slippery Rock. Mercyhurst was 10-3 in its league and 14-9 overall on Feb. 19.
The post-season berth the Rams would earn would be in the Atlantic Region of Division II tournament. Eight teams will comprise the Atlantic Region field. Two of those teams get automatic berths because they will be the champions of the PSAC and Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA). The first-year Mountain East Conference, where Shepherd is a member, doesn’t receive an automatic bid for its champion because of its first year status.
But Mountain East member West Liberty, currently ranked third in the nation, will get an Atlantic Region tournament bid regardless of how it finishes up its season.
With the inclusion of West Liberty, winner of the Atlantic Region in both 2012 and 2013, and the champions of the other two conferences there will be only five other spots open in the Regional.
East Stroudsburg (Pa.) had a 23-1 record and is assured a tournament bid. Indiana (Pa.) of the same PSAC league was 20-3 and assured of an Atlantic Region bid. West Liberty was 21-2 overall.
None of the other obvious contenders had fewer than six losses, and that was Livingstone of the CIAA with a 17-6 record. Livingstone played in the 2013 Atlantic Region tournament.
Others from the CIAA with records to be judged by the national tournament selection committee are Lincoln (17-7), Fayetteville State (17-8) and Winston-Salem State (15-9).
Four other teams from the 18-school PSAC with records firm enough to be critiqued are West Chester (17-7), Gannon (16-8 and the West Division leader with an 11-3 league record) and Slippery Rock (17-8 and with a win at Shepherd). Mercyhurst merits consideration with its 14-9 overall record and 10-3 mark in conference games.
Shepherd had five regular season games left and was within three wins of a 20-win season. The Rams are guaranteed at least one game in the inaugural Mountain East Conference tournament that plays its last three rounds in Charleston.
Would 20 wins be enough to bring the Rams a near-endangered species Atlantic Region berth? Not necessarily. But at least a Shepherd team has done well enough to be in consideration for the first time in 22 seasons.
Coach Justin Namolik and his high-scoring team could win the MEC tournament and move smartly to the Atlantic Region by that route. Or the Rams could get 20 wins even before joining the conference tournament infighting.
Regardless of the last weeks’ minefield, this Shepherd team has done more winning that any team since the 1993 season. And has been on the lips of the national selection committee.