The Flames are having arguably the program’s best ever regular season, and it has some talking about it perhaps being the best team ever. That could end up being true, but there’s still a lot of basketball to be played. One of the key factors to this success is the balance and depth.
McKay’s rotation generally runs 9 deep. He’s settled on a starting lineup of Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz, Lovell Cabbil, Caleb Homesley, Elijah Cuffee, and Scottie James since the Austin Peay game, and Liberty has put together an 11-1 mark since the loss to the Governors.
As McKay has settled on his starters, he has been able to have his bench rotation lock into their roles. Myo Baxter-Bell, Keenan Gumbs, Keegan McDowell, and Darius McGhee have provided more than just a breather for the starters. Liberty’s bench has outscored it’s opponents’ bench in 18 of the team’s first 21 games this season.
“I think we’ve got 8 or 9 guys that can do a lot of different things,” Lovell Cabbil said. “Anybody is capable of having a big night, any night, that’s from the top guy to the bottom guy. This team is really deep.”
Cabbil leads the team in minutes at 29.3 per game. If he, or anyone else, fails to reach the 30 minutes per game average for the season, it will be the first time that has happened since the 1999-00 season (when Delawn Grandison averaged a team-high 29.7 minutes per game) and only third time in school history the Flames did not have a player average at least 30 minutes per game. All 5 of McKay’s previously coached Liberty teams had at least 2 guys average over 30 minutes, including the 2008-09 team that saw 4.
“It’s been the single most important statistic on the year, how we’ve been able to rely and depend on our bench,” McKay said.
This depth has led to a very balanced team. In all except 1 game, the Flames have had multiple double figure scorers, including 6 games where 5 different players reached 10 points. Seven different guys have led the team in scoring. Through the team’s first 23 games, at least 8 different players have scored in all except for 1. The only game that didn’t happen was a game in which Keegan McDowell didn’t play. Games 24 and 25, against NJIT and Stetson, Liberty did not have 8 players score, primarily because of McGhee’s ankle injury. As he had a solid outing against FGCU Saturday night, the bench was back to its usual ways as all 9 guys who played got in the scoring column.
His bench provides McKay a lot of flexibility as well. He’s got the veteran Baxter-Bell that can spell Scottie or play alongside him. Grad transfer Keenan Gumbs provides energy and can play almost any position on the floor. McDowell is a rangy wing that can get hot from 3. McGhee can play either guard spot and provides a scoring punch off the bench.
“I’m very confident in any of those 4 guys coming off the bench,” said McKay. “They’ve all started, except for Darius who could be a starter. They are good enough to play at this level and contribute, and, quite honestly, good enough to start. That’s the beauty of having a team that is so deep.”
Baxter-Bell is a 6’5″ redshirt-junior from Dayton, Ohio. He started 25 games his redshirt-freshman season and 7 last year, but once Scottie James asserted himself in the post, Myo was relegated to coming off the bench. It’s a role that he has come to enjoy.
“I’m just having fun playing with joy and energy,” Baxter-Bell said. “(I’m) just enjoying the road that we are on with the guys we are doing it with. It’s fun to see our team do things that we knew we were capable of.”
He’s averaging 5.0 points and 2.5 rebounds per game in 15.5 minutes. Every time he gets on the floor, you see that joy and energy he’s talking about.
“(Myo’s) willingness to do whatever it takes to help the team win,” McKay said as he described Myo’s impact to the team. “Myo can score the ball, he’s a good passer, he’s a really good defender.”
As a graduate transfer from Division III Schreiner University, Gumbs has immediately provided an additional boost of energy for the Flames. He began the year as a starter, getting that nod in 12 games, before eventually succeeding that role to Caleb Homesley. He was an All-American last year and he has seemingly shifted with ease to his role as a spark plug off the bench.
“Coach puts me in to provide energy for the team,” Gumbs said. “I know that’s my role. I come in, play as hard as I can, and make whatever plays are possible wherever I’m needed – offense or defense. When I do make those energy plays, it really helps amp up the team and it helps amp up myself as well. Whatever coach wants me to do, I’m here to do it, and I just go out there and give my all.”
McDowell is a 3-point specialist as 115 of his 181 field goal attempts in his career have been from beyond the 3-point line where he’s shooting 37.4% for his career. He got 3 starts as a true freshman last year, but has settled into his role coming off the bench.
“It’s definitely an adjustment,” McDowell said of coming off the bench. “You get used to a rhythm and a flow of the game when you’re starting, but when you’re coming off the bench, you don’t know when you’re going to go in, you don’t know when you’re going to come out. You just have to be ready at all times.”
McGhee burst onto the scene in a big way with a string of 4 straight games with double digit scoring outputs including an 18 point performance at Navy and 15 at Vanderbilt. The small guard provides a scoring punch off the bench, but he has had to deal with increased pressure from opponents as he has made his way on to the scouting report. The true freshman has already been named ASUN Newcomer of the Week 4 times and he is one of the leaders for ASUN Freshman of the Year.
“From 1 to 14, I think everybody understands their role and understands what their teammates can do,” McDowell said. “With the skill that we have on the team, you never know who is going to go off in a certain game. A lot of the time it’s Caleb or Scottie, but some of the time it’s Darius or Myo or Keegan. It really just depends on the night, it depends on matchups.”