Liberty and Lipscomb.
It’s the game we’ve all been looking forward to for several weeks. It may be the biggest regular season game in school history, it’s certainly the biggest regular season home conference game ever.
Both teams have been on a collision course since early in the season. Lipscomb (16-4, 7-0), the defending ASUN tournament champs, was the preseason favorites to repeat, while newcomer Liberty (18-4, 7-0) was predicted to finish 3rd behind the Bisons and FGCU. Once Florida Gulf Coast started the season at 2-8 and the two LUs skyrocketed up all national rankings, it was evident the ASUN would be a 2-team race this season.
Both teams enter the meeting with undefeated conference records at 7-0. Lipscomb is currently ranked 48th in KenPom and 39th in NET, compared to Liberty’s 51st and 46th, respectively. The ASUN is 1 of only 4 conferences with multiple unbeaten teams in league play.
“The irony in this particular game,” Coach McKay said, “is it’s pretty unprecedented that two teams from a low- to mid-major conference are ranked so highly in the NET. I don’t think you get that on many nights, especially this deep into the season.”
The Bisons finished 2nd in the ASUN a season ago with a 10-4 mark in conference play before advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history thanks to a 108-96 win over #1-seed FGCU. Lipscomb received a 15-seed in the big dance where they fell to 2-seed North Carolina, 84-66.
So far this year, Lipscomb has parlayed last season’s performance into a 15-4 record which includes wins over SMU and #18 TCU. Three of their losses have come by a combined 10 points with the Bisons loss at Clemson the lone exception, losing to the Tigers by 17. Similarly, Liberty had a strong non-conference showing highlighted by wins over Kent State, Georgia State, and UCLA. All of the Flames’ losses have come by 10 points or fewer.
After a 3 point squeaker in a win at Jacksonville in their ASUN opener, Lipscomb has won all other conference games by at least 14 points until they went to the wire against FGCU Thursday night winning by just 8. The same can be said of the Flames, as Liberty has won all of its ASUN games by at least 15 with the exception of the 6 point win over North Florida and 10 point win Sunday at Jacksonville.
“For me, the neat thing about this is the build up around it for our guys,” McKay said of the extra attention this game is receiving. “When we got here (4 years ago), we weren’t playing in games like this. There seems to be a lot of attention that is being paid to it, nationally as well, which is a good thing for your program.”
Head coach Casey Alexander is in his 6th season at the helm of the Bisons. He came to Lipscomb following a 2-year stint as head coach at ASUN rival Stetson. Alexander is a Tennessee native, playing his college ball at Belmont from 1992-95 under long-time head coach Rick Byrd. Immediately following his graduation, Alexander became an assistant at Belmont, a position he held for 16 seasons, reaching 4 NCAA Tournaments while on the sidelines at his alma mater.
“I have a lot of respect for Casey and what his staff has done,” McKay said of Coach Alexander. “He’s taken a program who was a little bit obscure, and he’s made them a national name. When you beat TCU at TCU when they’re ranked, you’ve done something. They beat SMU (right) after that. If you watch the Louisville game, who is really good, they had every bit of a chance to win with a break or two. Clemson got a way at the beginning, they reeled it back in, but couldn’t overcome a really good ACC team.”
Becoming a Division I program prior to the 2001-02 season, Alexander has helped raise the Lipscomb program from the bottom of the Division I ranks. When he took over 6 years ago, the Bisons had as many losing records as a DI member as not. After struggling to a 41-53 record in his first 3 seasons at the helm, the Bisons are well on their way to the program’s 3rd consecutive 20-win season.
The Flames and Bisons have contrasting styles, Lipscomb leads the league in scoring and ranks 14th in the country, averaging 85 points per game. Liberty leads the ASUN in scoring defense and ranks 5th nationally, holding opponents to 59 points per game.
6’5″ senior guard Garrison Mathews paces the Lipscomb offense with 19.8 points per game, best in the ASUN. The two-time unanimous first-team all-ASUN selection and preseason player of the year has scored at least 20 points in 12 of the 19 games he has played in, including consecutive 31 point games in his last 2 outings. The senior has already become the program’s Division I era all-time leading scorer with over 2,000 for his career. He also holds the record for most made 3-pointers in the program’s Division I record with 298. He’s shooting 41.5% from 3 this season.
6’7″ senior forward Rob Marberry is Robin to Mathews’ Batman for the Bisons. Marberry was a unanimous preseason all-ASUN selection after making the 1st-team a year ago and 2nd team his sophomore season. He’s currently 5th in the ASUN in scoring at 15.9 points per game and 2nd in field goal percentage (behind Scottie James) at 61.7%. Marberry’s toughness and physical play has led to much of Lipscomb’s success, and he currently leads the team in blocks for the third straight season. He did miss Sunday’s game at Stetson and his status for Tuesday night’s game is uncertain.
“Garrison Mathews is a tremendous player,” McKay said. “I see why he’s preseason all-ASUN. He really has a gift to score, but he does other things as well. Marberry is a problem inside. You have to make a tough decision what to do with him in terms of how you want to defend him.”
6’0″ junior guard Kenny Cooper, 6’4″ junior guard Michael Buckland, and 6’8″ senior forward Eli Pepper round out Coach Alexander’s starting 5. Cooper is 3rd on the team as he averages 9.4 points per game. He also leads the team with 4.2 assists per game, but Cooper is struggling from 3 this year, making just 8 of his 33 attempts. Buckland provides a steadying force as he’s averaging 6.1 points and 2.4 rebounds per game while shooting 33.3% from 3. Pepper leads the team with 7.3 rebounds while also scoring 7.6 points per game.
Much like the Flames, Lipscomb has a very balanced and deep roster. They routinely play 9 or 10 in their rotation. Their bench play is highlighted by 6’9″ freshman center Ahsan Asadullah, 5’10” senior guard Nathan Moran, and 6’7″ senior forward Matt Rose. Asadullah is averaging 7.4 points and 4.7 rebounds while only playing 14 minutes per game. Moran is 2nd on the team (to Mathews) with 30 made 3-pointers. He averages 5.8 points per game. Rose is a transfer from Samford that is averaging 5.9 points per game and is 3rd on the team in 3 pointers made.
“Your margin for error shrinks when you play really good teams, and they are a really good team,” said McKay. “They capitalize on the smallest of your mistakes.”
This will be only the 3rd meeting on the hardwood between the two programs and first since 2006, but they are not strangers as the two LUs have gone head to head recruiting several prospects. The aforementioned Rose was one of the first recruits in recent years where McKay and Alexander battled on the recruiting trail, as Rose also made a visit to Lynchburg when deciding on a new home after his time at Samford. This has become even more common as both programs have risen the level of their programs and are now competing in the same conference, further adding to what could become the biggest rivalry in the ASUN.
Both teams have recruited several of the same prospects while in high school in recent years including Isaac McBride and Caleb Mills. McBride ended up signing with Kansas while Mills is a freshman at Houston. Blake Preston, currently redshirting for the Flames, was also offered by Lipscomb. Kyle Rode, who just signed with Liberty in the early signing period this past November, was also courted by the Bisons. Jacob Hobbs, a 6’8″ senior at Central Hardin High School in Kentucky, signed with Lipscomb in November but was also offered by Liberty.
“I think if it does develop into a rivalry,” McKay said of the Liberty-Lipscomb series, “then we’ve done something right because they’re going to be there, and from all indication I think FGCU will return to its form as well.”
The first of what could be 3 clashes this season between the new ASUN titans is sure to live up to all the hype.