Monday, August 1, 2011

"'The System?' We don't need no stinkin' System!"

OK, OK, pretty poor attempt at humor in the headline. It simply was the first thing that popped into my head, so forgive me.

Yet I did want to let everyone know this post was going to be a little different. For one of the few times since I've dedicated this blog to those lovable squads who "run, shoot, rebound, press, sub," it is featuring a non-System coach. Don't worry, this coach and his program still put up amazing numbers, even if they go about it a bit more traditionally than my favorite teams.

Jim Crutchfield has been the head coach at NCAA Division II West Liberty University for seven seasons, and in that time, he has the highest career active winning percentage of any D-II coach at .814 (175-40). In 2010-11, he led the Hilltoppers to their best season, a 33-1 finish that took them all the way to the Final Four in Springfield, Mass., where BYU-Hawaii prevailed in an up-and-down classic, 110-101.

Mostly because West Liberty is in the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference with Glenville State, where coach Bunky Harkleroad does his thing with the women's team, I kept up with the Hilltoppers as they mowed through the regular season. It mostly was due to the eye-popping scoring totals they put up: they averaged 153.3 points in their first three games, reached at least 100 in 25 of their games and finished the year scoring 111.3 points per game.

Coach Crutchfield did it more as Paul Westhead and Loyola Marymount did back in the day; that is to say, a shorter player rotation of seven-to-eight players who were in phenomenal physical condition, a constant full-court press that fell back to a more conventional style in the half-court and less of a focus on 3-pointers than System teams. Don't get me wrong, however, West Liberty did shoot the 3. Its nearly 36 attempts from beyond the arc in each game came more from the flow of the offense, rather than as a point of emphasis.

In fact, during our conversation, I got the idea Coach Crutchfield did what he could to distance himself from The System (of course, I am incredibly biased when it comes to this, so perhaps I read it wrong). You will note a couple of occasions during our conversation where he points out that his style is based on "fundamentals," which might be where I misinterpreted his views. Looking back, I believe he really meant "traditional," or "conventional," when differentiating between what he does and what System coaches do. You be the judge.

(How did you develop this high-scoring style at West Liberty?)

Coach Crutchfield: "When I got this job seven years ago, it hadn't been very successful. I felt we needed to do something very different if we were going to change that. Something a little different, not too far off-center, a kind of a package, with half of them on offense and half of them on defense. I continue to tweak them a little more."

(What do you emphasis in this style?)

Coach Crutchfield: "The kind of numbers we put up, I have never once set a goal with our team. We don't care if it takes the full 35 seconds of the shot clock, we want to get a high-percentage shot with our players in good offensive rebounding position. What (System teams do), that's completely different than our philosophy. We want to get the ball back without our opponent scoring. If we do that enough, eventually we're going to win the basketball game.

"I've never looked at how many points we score, and I know if you look at these numbers, you would think we talked about it. But we've gotten pretty good at what we do."

(How would you describe how your team plays?)

Coach Crutchfield: "When I watched a game, there always is a little bit of a lull in that period between offense and defense, where a point guard can find his coach and ask, 'What do you want to run here?' What we've tried to do is take that lull out of the game, that is basically it.

"It's just something that I wanted to do. The very first year, we were picked last in the league, and people thought we were going to control the score, control the tempo. I had never been a walk-it-up-the-court guy. Now, we don't take bad shots. It really has evolved. We put pressure in any situation, and we understand risk vs. reward. We don't take high risks, we're not looking at giving up layups to play uptempo. We play fundamentally, I want to keep my best players on the floor most of the time. It's pretty much a seven- or eight-man rotation."

(Do you think your style is looked at as being a "gimmick," a criticism you often hear when discussing The System?)

Coach Crutchfield: "Not really, and it's because we're beating good teams. I'll be honest, we called Grinnell to see about setting up a game, but they would struggle playing us. I would like to see those two systems going head-to-head. We don't use the platoon, and we're not really running down and launching 3s. You're going to be surprised when you see the final score and we've got 100 points.

"One game, we hit 100 at halftime, but no one really has looked at it as a gimmick, since we play so fundamentally."

(Where do you want to go next with your program?)

Coach Crutchfield: "I have been trying to get a Division I team to play us, and no one will. They say, 'We could lose to you, you've got a good team.' I'm not connected enough. I want to see how it would look against a Division I team. I think you would be surprised."

(Have you had many opportunities to leave for a Division I position?)

Coach Crutchfield: "Honestly, I'm very happy where I'm at. This is a great school, and I'm having a blast. I've gotten a few phone calls this year, but it wasn't the right situation. You look at (Butler coach Brad) Stevens and those guys, hell, I'm 55 years old. I'm an ancient guy in this game. If I were just younger, maybe the jobs would have opened up. A lot of people are looking for somebody younger than 55. If the right situation opened up, I would be open to it."

(What do you expect from your team in the upcoming season?)

Coach Crutchfield: "We lost our top four players, and all were here for four years, all scored at least 1,000 points, and between the four of them, they scored 6,000 points. They were also on the second team when they came in as freshmen and grew up together. I've never had a Division I transfer, never had a junior college guy. Some people would say, 'All they have coming back are subs.' Well, we've done pretty well with subs in the past, when it was their turn on the first team.

"I feel good about the guys coming in, and we have a handful of guys coming back who know how I want to play. We're going to be younger, but we're going to be fine."

A huge thanks to Coach Crutchfield for taking time to speak with me, and I wish him luck in the upcoming season. Unless, of course, he does get that game with Grinnell.

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