CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The secrets will be few for tonight's prime-time matchup in the West Virginia Conference men's tournament semifinals.
Only 11 miles separate the campuses of West Liberty and Wheeling Jesuit, familiar Northern Panhandle rivals who collide in the 8:30 game at the Civic Center.
The two-time defending tournament champion Hilltoppers (28-1) carry the No. 1 seed into the contest against the No. 4-seeded Cardinals (19-9), and are also ranked No. 1 nationally in NCAA Division II.
West Liberty seeks to become just the second WVC program in 76 years to sweep three consecutive regular-season and tournament crowns. Fairmont State did it four straight years under coach Joe Retton (1973-76).
The men's session starts with a pairing of No. 2 seed Fairmont State (21-7) against No. 3 Alderson-Broaddus (20-8) at 6:30 p.m., meaning the WVC's seeding process has held true thus far, with the top four teams all advancing to the semifinals.
West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield expects to see a lot of the same strategies from Wheeling Jesuit tonight that his team saw in the regular season.
"Teams really don't have time to revamp their style of play for us,'' Crutchfield said. "They've played zone to get here, they played zone against us before. We'll have to be good in our zone offense. They run a five-man motion offense and they're good at it. We need to be able to defend that.''
The two teams have played a close game and a blowout, with West Lib capturing each.
The Hilltoppers survived with an 87-82 victory at Jesuit on Jan. 26, then shot down the Cardinals 101-76 to close the regular season last Saturday. (The 87 points for West Liberty in the first meeting was its fifth-lowest output of the season).
"A lot of things will be the same,'' Crutchfield said. "There will be a few wrinkles by each team - no major changes. They probably feel like they didn't play their best game against us last week, because they didn't. They'll definitely play better.
"A lot of people talk about it being a rivalry game, but I don't look at it that way. It doesn't matter who you play this time of year. You win or you're out. You have to look at every game as the game of the year no matter if it's Wheeling or whoever - because it is.''
Cardinals coach Danny Sancomb realizes what awaits his team at tonight's tipoff against the frenetic style of West Liberty.
The Hilltoppers head the conference by large margins in both rebounding and forcing turnovers, leading them to extra chances at the basket with a prolific offense that tops the nation at 104.6 points per game.
"We're going to have to be ready to go up and down,'' Sancomb said, "and have more possessions in that game. I think our guys know however it goes, they're going to give us some problems.
"They've gotten us twice this year. One was a close game. The second time, they got us up there pretty good. Both [games] were pretty good as far as limiting their possessions. They shot the ball really well at their place in the second game.''
In their most recent postseason meeting, West Liberty ousted Jesuit 87-77 in the 2011 tournament quarterfinals, though the Cardinals lead the Hilltoppers 4-3 all-time in postseason games.
Justin Fritts, a 6-foot-1 senior guard, leads the Cardinals in scoring at 16.0 points per game, followed closely by 6-3 senior guard Ben Siefert (15.6).
West Lib features five players in double figures, led by WVC player of the year Alex Falk (20.5), a 6-4 senior.
In today's other men's semifinal, Fairmont State and A-B will renew acquaintances.
These two teams met only once during the regular season, with the Falcons pulling out an 81-73 home victory on Feb. 14 behind 22 points from Malik Stith. Kurklin Bohanon led the Battlers with 25 points.
"I think first and foremost, they're one of the hardest-playing teams in the league,'' said Fairmont State coach Jerrod Calhoun. "Kirklun Bohanon's an all-league guy. We'll have to get some easy baskets off our defense and get some runouts and be really good in transition.
"We played some different guys off the bench [Thursday] because at this time of year, you've got to be ready for things like heavy legs, foul trouble . . . Teams that advance in March get good bench play, rebound the ball and get easy baskets. If we guard and rebound the basketball, we can do well against anybody in the country.''
Former Martinsburg standout Isaac Thornton, a 6-3 senior guard, leads Fairmont State in scoring at 17.8 points per game, while Bohanon, a 6-3 senior guard, tops A-B at an identical 17.8.
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or email@example.com.