Bridgeport, W.Va. – The Mountain East Conference released their Preseason Men’s Basketball Coaches Poll on Wednesday afternoon, with West Liberty University being picked to defend their conference title with 98 points and eight first place votes from the league’s coaches. Following a trip to the NCAA Division II National Championship game a year ago with a 33-4 (20-2 MEC) record, the Hilltoppers are picked atop the conference’s preseason poll for the sixth consecutive season.
Fresh off a spectacular run to the NCAA Division II national championship game, head coach Ben Howlett is reloading the West Liberty arsenal with an eye toward hanging up a few more championship banners inside the ASRC.
“Last year was the most fun I’ve had as a head coach,” said Howlett, who brings the highest winning percentage in NCAA basketball (161-25, .866) into his seventh year at the Hilltopper helm. “It might have been the best season in school history.
“We were playing our best basketball at the end of the year, won the (Mountain East) conference regular season championship, swept the MEC Tournament, swept the Atlantic Region Tournament and played for the national title. I’ll never forget the guys on that team. They made it fun to come to practice every day. Just a special, special group.”
The late-season 18-game winning streak ended in a 111-101 shootout to unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Nova Southeastern (Fla.) in the highest-scoring national final in NCAA D2 history but that setback did little to dim the luster of a 33-4 season that added another layer to the winning tradition on the hilltop.
Since 2010, the Hilltoppers have compiled the best winning percentage (407-50, .891) in NCAA basketball, including an NCAA-best 219-10 (.956) inside the ASRC.
They’ve won or shared conference titles in 12 of the last 13 seasons and earned 14 straight NCAA Tournament bids. West Liberty has a 34-14 (.708) record in NCAA Tournament play and has advanced to 10 of the last 13 Sweet 16s, 7 Elite Eights and 5 national semifinals.
Consensus All-American Bryce Butler has transferred to NCAA Division I for his final season while 1,000-point scorers Malik McKinney and Steve Cannady departed via graduation, leaving Howlett with some big holes to fill. But in the era of the transfer portal, the reigning W.Va. College Coach of the Year has been there before. And as he points out, the cupboard is far from bare.
“We did lose three really good players,” Howlett said, “but we also return 7 of the top 10 guys from a rotation that took us to the national championship game. We’ve brought in some very talented transfers who’ve all had success at the collegiate level and will help right away. I’ve also been impressed by our three high school recruits. They’ve picked things up a little faster than anticipated and I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or two of them earn major minutes.”
Christian Montague, a 6-1 All-MEC senior guard from Dayton, Ohio, heads into his third season on the hilltop – and fifth collegiate campaign – with 1,277 career points. Montague (12.1 ppg., 78 3FGs) led the team in assists last year and hit double-figures 30 times while shooting 45 percent from the 3-point arc.
“We’re really going to lean on Christian,” Howlett said. “He’s by far our best on-ball defender and I have complete trust in him offensively. He’s a terrific leader and one of the best guards in the region.”
Ben Sarson, a 6-6 junior forward from Pittsburgh, also returns. Sarson (10.3 ppg., 4.3 rpg., 63 3FGs) had 19 double-figure scoring games while shooting 48 percent from the floor and 40 percent from the 3-point arc a year ago.
“Ben’s a very athletic defense and hustle guy who can also stretch the floor with threes,” Howlett said. “You’ll see him playing a lot of minutes again.”
Alek West, a 6-4 senior guard from Sylvania, Ohio who transferred in from Ohio Dominican last year, has posted 900 career points. West (6.3 ppg., 3.2 rpg.) played in all 37 games and hit double-figures 7 times.
“Alek probably had the best preseason of anybody,” Howlett said. “His shooting percentage is way up and his basketball IQ has always been off the charts. He’ll be a big part of what we do.”
Chaz Hinds, a 6-8 senior post who transferred in from Olney Central CC last season, played in all 37 games. Hinds (6.4 ppg., 3.2 rpg.) had 9 double-figure scoring games.
“Chaz has always been a good 3-point shooter and he’s really been working on rebounding and interior defense. If we can get him healthy, he’ll be a big factor for us.”
Zach Rasile, a 6-1 junior guard from McDonald, Ohio, played in all 37 games. Rasile (9.3 ppg., 86 3FGs) shot 45 percent from the 3-point arc with a team-high 86 bonus bombs and hit double-figures 17 times.
“An elite 3-point shooter, Zach added another piece to his game with the ability to get to the rim and score,” Howlett said. “He’s really good in our press and a tough, hard-nosed defender.”
Finley Woodward, a 6-7 sophomore forward from Bristol, England, played in 36 games as a true freshman and contributed quality minutes down the stretch.
“Fin worked hard on his shooting and made a big jump during the off-season,” Howlett said. “Like a lot of European guys, he understands how to play the game.”
Dante Spadafora, a 6-0 guard from Pittsburgh, played in 34 games as a redshirt freshman. A perpetual-motion machine, Spadafora is a crowd favorite inside the ASRC.
“Dante was right behind Alek in terms of having a good preseason,” Howlett said. “He got up a lot of shots and improved his perimeter game plus he’s a great energy guy.”
Grant Barnhart, a 6-3 sophomore guard from St. Marys, W.Va., played in 21 games as a true freshman.
“Grant’s a hard-working guy who gives us great energy every day as he keeps working on his game,” Howlett said. “He’s a great teammate and an outstanding shooter.”
Howlett’s four transfers bring some impressive resumes to the hilltop.
John Korte, a 6-6 graduate transfer forward, was a first-team All-MEC pick at Wheeling after ranking among the league’s Top 5 in scoring (19.6 ppg.) and rebounding (7.3 rpg.). He scored 1,049 points at WU – including a career-high 40 in a 114-107 upset win over the Hilltoppers.
“John can score the basketball, guard multiple positions and rebound at a high level,” Howlett said.
Darren Fergus, a 6-1 junior guard, earned NCAA D2 All-East Region and ECC Player of the Year honors at Molloy (N.Y.). Fergus (20.6 ppg., 7.6 rpg.) has already tallied 1,148 points.
“Darren’s a shifty, speedy guard who can score in a variety of ways,” Howlett said.
Laync Shuler, a 6-1 junior guard, was a two-year starter at Erskine (S.C.) who ranked among Conference Carolinas Top 5 scorers (16.8 ppg.). He hit double-figures 21 times with two 34-point nights and has scored 599 career points.
“Laync knows how to play the game,” Howlett said. “He’s going to play a lot.”
Ryan Reasbeck, a 6-3 sophomore guard, was a teammate of Korte’s at Wheeling. He hit double-figures 7 times, including a combined 41 points and 9 3FGs in two games against WLU.
“Ryan is an elite shooter, a great kid and a terrific competitor,” Howlett said. “He’ll be a good player for us.”
All three freshmen are coming off outstanding high school careers.
Kyler D’Augustino, a 6-1 southpaw guard from Albany, Ohio, was an All-Ohio Division II guard who ranked among the state’s top scorers (27.9 ppg.) at Alexander High School. Kyler was the leading scorer and Team MVP for the victorious South team in the Ohio North-South Game.
“Kyler’s been pushing for playing time as a true freshman,” Howlett said. “That doesn’t happen here very often but he may force our hand.”
Terrance Pankey Jr., a 6-2 guard from Youngstown, Ohio, is another All-Ohio Division II guard. He averaged a double-double (18.5 ppg., 10.2 rpg.) at Ursuline High School and was also picked to play in the Ohio North-South Game.
“Terrance is Youngstown tough,” Howlett said. “He’ll get up in your face and guard you. We think he’s going to be really good.”
Garrison Kisner, a 6-7 forward from Morgantown, W.Va., is an All-OVAC frontliner who helped lead Morgantown High School to its second straight state title. West Virginia’s leading scorer in the OVAC All-Star Game, Kisner also won the Slam-Dunk Contest.
“Garrison definitely plays above the rim,” Howlett said. “He’ll make some noise at WLU before he’s through.”
Howlett likes what he’s seen to this point in the preseason but says the 2023-24 Hilltoppers are still a work in progress.
“It’s like any other year,” Howlett said. “With so many new guys, some days I think we’re going to be really good and other days not so much. I do think we have talent. It’s just a matter of finding combinations that work well together and getting guys on the same page.”
There’s a bit of a new look to Howlett’s staff as former assistant Mike Lamberti is now head coach at Coker (S.C.) University. After three years as a student assistant, Connor Harr stepped up to fill Lamberti’s role. Veteran assistant Dr. Aaron Huffman returns for his 13th season and the staff welcomed back former WLU All-American Dan Monteroso as a part-time assistant coach.