West Liberty and the race for the prize
Replacing a legend of any kind, in any field, is a tough task. Doing it as part of your very first head coaching job is even tougher. Rarely, if ever, do you see it work out just as well as the predecessor. Sustaining excellence is difficult, no matter what field you’re working in. So of course 32-year-old Ben Howlett makes it look easy:
After two years at West Liberty, his alma mater, Howlett is sustaining the standards his predecessor, Jim Crutchfield, set. Crutchfield took over a team that hadn’t won 20+ games in a season in 47 years. He did it in his very first season. Then he did it again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again. For 13 seasons, Crutchfield took West Liberty to heights they’d never, ever seen before. A 359-61 record, four Division II Final Four appearances, a national runner-up outing in 2014, and more – how could you possibly be expected to top that?
Crutchfield, now in his 60s, departed for Nova Southeastern two years ago. He’s got them winning lots of games, unsurprisingly. It was imperative for West Liberty to find someone who would love West Liberty thoroughly and do their best to keep up the winning pace. A then 32-year-old Howlett, an alumnus and the lead assistant for Crutchfield for six seasons, sure seemed like a worthy pick. Two years in, it’s hard to argue against him: he’s 54-9, 40-4 in Mountain East play, and West Liberty yet again led Division II in points per game. When you get looks like these in transition, it’s no wonder:
While his predecessor didn’t have much to say about his offense simply because it was, well, too simple, Howlett was talkative. “It starts with trying to put as much pressure on the other team’s offense as possible,” Howlett said. The stats, of course, will back this up: two seasons in, Howlett’s Hilltoppers are forcing a 19.9% TO% defensively, well ahead of the Division 1 average of 18.5%. They weren’t as great as he’d like on defense this past season – a near-1.1 PPP allowed – but his offense more than made up for it. “We try to have everything possible in our arsenal,” Howlett notes. Running off-ball screens for a shooter that wears an eye patch is something essentially no one else has:
Dalton Bolon, a sophomore guard from Ohio, suffered an eye injury before West Liberty’s season started. Essentially, he played all of 2018-19 with one functioning eye. It’s hard enough for some of us (myself) to shoot well with two eyes. Naturally, Bolon exploded, averaging 20.7 points per game on 46/41/83 shooting splits. He can hammer you in a lot of ways, but one that Howlett prefers are plays like this that evolve naturally from the Hilltoppers’ motion offense:
Of the three teams in this piece, West Liberty is predictably the hardest one to describe. Why? They don’t really run set plays. Howlett prefers a freeform, naturally flowing motion offense that works so well it looks like a set play. “We don’t have a lot of set plays, and in a perfect world, I would like to not call one set play in an entire game,” he mentions. It’s pretty hard to argue with Howlett’s philosophy when you run it as well as West Liberty does. The Hilltoppers, as a team, offered up a crazy 50/43/78 shooting split. Exactly one team in Division 1 even passed a lesser 50/40/75 split: South Dakota State.
So: how does West Liberty do it when they don’t have a ton of plays to pick from? They push the pace, early and often, and they’ve done it forever. West Liberty averaged 80 possessions per game last season, which (shocker!) would’ve been the fastest in Division 1. They get out in transition as much as they can, but it’s not a run-and-gun style of offense. Rather, as Howlett says, “we’re a high-octane, potent offense where everybody’s able to do a little bit of everything.” Translation: we’re not Grinnell. When you get looks like this, the argument against pushing the pace folds quickly:
“When we recruit players, they know exactly how we’re going to play,” says Howlett. The Hilltoppers are fearless and ferocious, the Daytona 500 on a basketball court 30 nights a year. Maybe they don’t push it quite to the level of a Whitman, definitely not a Grinnell or Greenville, but they push it more than 99% of teams in existence. Playing fast is one attractive thing; playing free is another. “I don’t try to pigeon-hole guys,” notes Howlett. “All of our guys have got to be able to dribble, pass, shoot, and play multiple positions. It allows our guys to play freely and allows them to make multiple decisions on the floor.” That explains how 6’5″ Eric Meininger, a small forward at most schools, ended up being the team’s center:
Meininger is a fun example of what happens when you get a player for four years and build him to his full potential. Until his junior year, Meininger rarely played more than ten minutes a game, though he posted good shooting numbers in limited minutes. After a solid junior year (9.5 PPG, 5.7 RPG on 53/34/88), he, like Bolon, exploded: 13.9 PPG and 7.4 RPG on 55/42/80 splits. He was a very reliable scorer (24 of 33 games in double-digits, including 21 of final 26) and packed a punch from all over the court, including inside against this zone:
Having someone like Meininger become an excellent piece of the offense is exactly what Howlett’s about when it comes to having a versatile offense. “With our style of play and the players that we have, we’re able to pull the other team’s 4 and 5 men out to the perimeter to guard their men,” says Howlett. “All of our players can shoot. We don’t recruit guys that can’t shoot the basketball.” It’s a simple recruiting strategy, but one that clearly works.
To run what West Liberty has wanted to run for over a decade, Howlett is basically required to have these somewhat-positionless lineups on the floor at all times. “We don’t want a center that plays with his back to the basket and stays inside the entire game, because that clogs up the paint area,” he says. “I want our 4s and 5s to play on the perimeter and be able to either finish at the rim or draw help and kick it out for an open shot.” Here’s another forward, Marlon Moore, Jr., doing exactly that for Tyler Primmer:
“Most of our threes were off the catch, which I loved,” said Howlett. “I bet I could count on one hand the number of threes shot off the dribble. To me, that’s rewarding as a coach.” I decided to double-check this for him. It wasn’t quite on one hand – 126 dribble jumper threes, or 25.2 hands, to be exact – but it paled in comparison to the 797 three-point attempts that were from a pass, per Synergy. It’s hard to get a number down for college – Synergy suggests catch-and-shoot threes are somewhere around 1.4% and 1.8% more likely to go in on average – but in the NBA, the difference is around 3.7% in favor of the three off a pass. Either way, you want your players to be unselfish and look for the open man. West Liberty did that in spades.
By the way, the good news about having a team full of shooters: it leaves the lane wide open for some easy layups.
Being able to get layups because of the gravity of your perimeter shooting is what I’d imagine every coach dreams of. Howlett’s lucky enough to have a team full of shooters. “From backcuts to curl cuts to dribble penetrations to post-ups to shooting threes, I want all of that,” says Howlett. “If we can find a player that’s able to do that, we want him to be at West Liberty University.” That’s how you win 54 games in two years, and how you continue a dynasty that’s gone on for over a decade now.
Also, a quick note: Howlett changes nothing about his offense when he faces a zone. It’s the same man-to-man motion concepts, with occasional overloads and more middle action. “When a team sees a zone defense, they think they have to change their offense and go into some special, magical offense. That’s what we try to eliminate,” says Howlett. Of course, there’s not much of a point of running a zone against a team that shoots 42.5% from three:
Lastly, none of this would be possible without a massively important factor: shot volume. In the basic calculation I’ve provided before (OREB% + (100 – TO%), West Liberty crushed it with a 122.4 Shot Volume. That would’ve been the highest in Division I this year, and I wasn’t surprised at all to hear how much Howlett emphasizes it. “We’re certainly not the most athletic or tallest or fastest group, but I think that we have guys that play extremely hard, and that makes up for a lack of size,” said Howlett. Considering West Liberty didn’t run out a single lineup with a player taller than 6’7″, posting a 37.4% OREB% is absurd. Offensive rebounding has become sort of a lost art; Howlett suggests sending four to the boards on every single possession if you can.
If all of what you’ve read seems somewhat vague, it’s designed to be that way. Howlett expressed his desire for a game in which he never runs a single set play. His predecessor, to my knowledge, never described the same offense in any serious detail. West Liberty basketball, by design, is like a first draft with plot holes that suddenly became a work of art on the scale of Monet. In fact, think of it as the Grand Canal painting: it’s not immensely detailed, but what you’re seeing is beautiful and achieves everything it set out to achieve. A transition-heavy offense that immediately settles into motion concepts isn’t unique, but it’s incredibly effective. And, again, if it produces a look like this:
You can’t really argue with it.