Bovaird keeping close eye on his alma mater and mentor

West Liberty fever has struck the Ohio Valley.

Hilltoppers’ alumni all over the nation will be tuned in today at 3 p.m. to see if their beloved men’s basketball team can claim the school’s first NCAA Division II National Championship when it takes on Central Missouri at the Ford Center in Evansville.

While it’s not shocking that the Ohio Valley is fully behind the Hilltoppers today.

One of their biggest fans, however, is more than 4,600 miles from the West Liberty campus this morning.

Eric Bovaird will be tuned into CBS’ broadcast from his living room in Honolulu, HI.

Bovaird isn’t just any alumni, either. He knows the Hilltoppers inside and out.

Taking it a step further, he helped build the current roster as we know it.

Bovaird spent seven seasons working under Jim Crutchfield as his chief assistant before leaving following the 2011 season.

“I still follow every one of their games,” Bovaird said during a phone interview Friday. “Coach Crutchfield and I talk about once a week or once every couple of weeks whether it’s a text or a call.”

Bovaird left the Hilltoppers’ staff following the team’s first trip to the Elite 8 and eventually the national semifinals for the head coaching position at Chaminade University in Hawaii.

Bovaird didn’t just coach at West Liberty. He played there and earned his bachelor’s degree there. He and current Bellaire head coach J.R. Battista formed quite the one-two combo in the Hilltoppers’ backcourt in the mid 90s.

After a brief pro career in Europe, Bovaird returned and was hired by Crutchfield at his alma mater and his career was off and running.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better coach to work under because he had the ultimate trust in me,” Bovaird said. “I would go out and find the guys, present my recommendations. He had the final call, obviously, but that trust and willingness to do that really helped my advancement in this profession.”

Together, Crutchfield and Bovaird helped build the Hilltoppers’ juggernaut that’s running wild today.

“Sometimes I think I am doing more coaching from my living room or office when I am watching the games online than I do with my own team,” Bovaird joked. “I’d love to be there (today), but with two young kids, it’s tough, so I’ll be rooting them on from home.”

Crutchfield actually texted Bovaird Thursday night after the Hilltoppers outlasted USC-Aiken in the semifinals.

“He said he wished I was there with them,” Bovaird said. “I follow every game. They’ve got a great chance to win the championship. I’ve followed the other team and saw them play some. I honestly believe West Liberty has a great chance, and I think they’re going to do it.”

Bovaird’s Chaminade squad is the yearly host of the Maui Invitational in November, so he’s locked horns with some big-time coaches who had big-time talent on their roster. He actually owns a victory against Texas during the Maui Invitational a few years ago.

Unbiasedly, he is willing to put Crutchfield up against any of the coaches at any level of basketball, including the major college game.

“I learned more about basketball from Coach Crutchfield than I did all of the other people I spent time around during my career,” Bovaird said. “He just has a new and interesting perspective on the game. A lot of guys can’t pick things up just by watching, but he has that ability.”

On top of his ability to strategize, Bovaird marvels at Crutchfield’s knack for player development.

“The progress the kids who play there make from their freshman to senior seasons is impressive,” Bovaird said.

Bovaird didn’t hesitate when he was asked where Crutchfield ranks amongst other coaches in the game.

“I think he’s the best coach in college basketball,” Bovaird said. “I’ve coached against major college coaches, and I see how they prepare and coach their teams. I truly believe (Crutchfield) is the best coach in the country.”

Obviously, Crutchfield’s four consecutive 30-win seasons and Atlantic Regional Championships help influence Bovaird’s belief, but there’s more to it than just that.

“What he’s done at West Liberty is remarkable,” Bovaird said. “It’s not like West Liberty is the number one, ideal location for a high school recruit to go.”

The fact that West Liberty is having its success strictly with high school recruits is also astonishing to many who follow the sport. Crutchfield and the Hilltoppers have never had a Division I transfer nor a junior college recruit.

“That in itself is a remarkable feat,” Bovaird said of the way the Hilltoppers have been constructed.

As talented of a coach as Bovaird thinks Crutchfield is, he doesn’t foresee him leaving the Hilltoppers’ program.

“It would take the perfect situation to pry him away from West Liberty,” Bovaird said. “He’s had interest from some Division I schools, but he won’t go just anywhere. He’s incredibly content at West Liberty.

“And why wouldn’t he be? He’s the king of the hill, man.”

Yes, yes he is!

SETH’S SCOOPS

BOVAIRD, who has led Chaminade to back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Tournament and a conference title this past season, would honestly like to get the chance to play his alma mater. But, making the trip worthwhile for the Hilltoppers in terms of expenses is a different story.

“I would love to play them, but the other schools out here wouldn’t want to,” Bovaird laughed. “I’d have to convince them to let West Liberty come out and play exhibition games.”

A WIN today could mean an exhibition date with Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium in November. The Blue Devils have welcomed the last several NCAA Division II champs for a game.

A VICTORY would give West Liberty the second national title in school history. The Hilltoppers’ baseball team won the NAIA championship in 1964.