There are no secrets between the West Liberty and Nova Southeastern men’s basketball teams.
When the ball tips off on the NCAA Division II national championship between No. 1-seeded Nova Southeastern (35-0) and No. 2 West Liberty (33-3) at 3 p.m. Saturday at Ford Center in Evansville, Ind., fans watching live and on the CBS broadcast will be treated to a game between two programs that have been inextricably tied for the past six years.
“It’s like we’re looking at ourselves in the mirror,” sixth-year West Liberty coach Ben Howlett said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun. I know our players are looking forward to it.”
The ties between the two teams begin at the top.
Nova Southeastern coach Jim Crutchfield led the West Liberty program from 2004 until 2017. His record of 359-61, and .855 winning percentage with the Hilltoppers, is the highest among coaches at any NCAA level who spent at least 10 seasons at their institution. West Liberty, a small West Virginia public school located about 50 miles from Pittsburgh, eclipsed 20 wins 13 times under Crutchfield and 30 wins five times.
Crutchfield also recruited Howlett to play at West Liberty. In his four-season career spanning from 2005-09, Howlett played on four consecutive 20-win teams and finished at No. 17 on the Hilltoppers’ all-time scoring list with 1,663 points.
After his playing career ended, Howlett joined Crutchfield’s staff. He served as West Liberty’s top assistant coach for six seasons before being named head coach and keeping a streak of success alive, which includes 14 consecutive NCAA tournament bids, seven Elite Eight berths, five Final Fours and now two trips to the national title game.
West Liberty previously played for the national title in 2014, a game that ended in an 84-77 loss to Central Missouri. Nova Southeastern is making its first national championship appearance in school history.
“I think it’ll be a lot of points on the board,” said Howlett, whose team has won 18 consecutive games. “It’s neat. Obviously I played for [Crutchfield] and worked for him, but at the end of the day we’re trying to win a national title for West Liberty and he’s trying to win a national title for Nova Southeastern. It’s about the teams right now. It’s not about us, and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
The similarities between the two teams — which run matching high-intensity, fast-paced offensive and full-court press defensive sets — are unmistakable.
Nova Southeastern leads Division II in scoring at 102.5 points per game, while also sitting at second in assists with 21.6 per outing. The Sharks also shoot 51% from the field, which is good for fourth in D-II.
West Liberty, meanwhile, trails only Nova Southeastern nationally with an average of 100 points per game. The Hilltoppers’ averages of 22.3 assists and 12.5 3-pointers per game are good for tops in D-II.
For Nova Southeastern assistant coach Nick Smith, a 2017 North Hills graduate who played four seasons for the Sharks, the national championship will come down to “who does it better” when it comes to executing the teams’ matching signature offensive and defensive sets.
Smith and Nova Southeastern top assistant Jordan Fee represent their program’s Western Pennsylvania connections. Fee is a native of Grove City and played two seasons at West Liberty.
“Who plays harder. Who gets to the loose ball,” Smith said. “It’s going to be a high-paced game. It’s going to be a high-scoring game. It’s who’s more disciplined. Who makes the smarter plays, obviously, who shoots the ball better.”
Graduate student Will Yoakum, a 6-foot-5 guard/forward who played five seasons at West Liberty before transferring to Nova Southeastern, paces the Sharks. He averages 19.9 points per game.
“Playing with him for three years I know him very well,” said West Liberty junior guard/forward Bryce Butler, a native of Latrobe. “He knows me very well. I think it’s going to be a more cool experience for the both of us. That’s pretty much the biggest thing.”
Forward RJ Sunahara, a 6-8 junior, and 6-9 sophomore Jonathan Pierre average 18.6 and 14.7 points per game for the Sharks, respectively. Sophomore guard Kobe Rodgers averages 13.2 points per game for Nova Southeastern, while redshirt freshman Dallas Graziani averages 10.9 points and 6.6 assists per game, which is sixth best in the nation.
“We basically said it’s just going to be like an open gym in the fall, playing against ourselves,” Butler said. “It’s going to come down to who plays harder and whoever makes the hustle plays.”
And the Hilltoppers’ success starts with Butler. He averages 22.3 points per game, good for 13th in the nation and a team-high 7.5 rebounds.
“Bryce, his big brother is a good friend of mine,” Smith said. “Austin played with and against me. I played against him in high school. I played with him in AAU. I’m really, really familiar with their whole family. Our moms are friends, and we’re friends.
“It’ll be pretty cool to play Bryce. I’ve known him my whole life and I’ve seen him play since he was a young kid. He’ll be a handful to guard. We’re going to have to key in on him a lot and take his looks and opportunities away as much as we can.”
Guards Malik McKinney, Christian Montague and Steve Cannady also play critical roles for West Liberty. McKinney averages 12 points per game, while Montague contributes 11.9 and Cannady adds 10.9
The Hilltoppers also rely on an edge from its second and third former WPIAL representatives, forward Ben Sarson and guard Dante Spadafora.
A Central Catholic graduate and Sewickley native, Sarson contributes 10.5 points and 4.4 rebounds per game as a member of the West Liberty starting five. Spadafora, a 2021 Our Lady of the Sacred Heart graduate and a Sheraden native, provides a spark with the Hilltoppers’ second unit, and averages 2.5 points in 9.5 minutes per game.
“It’s great,” Smith said. “You talk about Pittsburgh basketball doesn’t get maybe as much love as it should, between Nelly Cummings [at Pitt] and Shawndale Jones over at IUP, Bryce Butler, they’re kind of putting it on for Western PA basketball as of late. It’s good to see all these guys have success.”
Butler, for his part, is hoping his success will translate to more accolades for his home region — and, of course, a national championship. He added that he is also excited to put the perception that Division II basketball isn’t played at a high level to rest.
“I just think that’s the biggest thing, showing what we actually can do on the biggest stage,” he said.
John is a copy editor and page designer at the Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at email@example.com.