With all the success Coach McKay has brought to the program over the past two seasons, the team has not performed well on the most important stage, losing in the first game of the Big South Tournament in each of the past 2 seasons. The team is well aware of that point, but is not focusing on March right now, instead focusing on daily improvement.
“We try to take it one day at a time,” junior guard Lovell Cabbil stated. “We’ve never won a conference tournament game since I’ve been here, but we’re trying to take it one day at a time, take it one game at a time.”
The lone senior on the squad, Ryan Kemrite, had similar thoughts. “(March) is really far away. We’re just worried about getting better every single day, that’s been our mantra. We’re going to be older, we’re going to be more experienced, that comes with the end of the season stuff when you have experienced guys that have played together.”
This same response echoed throughout the team. “We have to know it’s one game at a time,” point guard Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz said. “We can’t think about the next game, we have to play this game today. We have to work harder than last year if we want to get to our goal of going to March Madness. Just keep getting better, one game at a time, just get better every day.”
Assistant Coach Kyle Getter said this mindset of daily improvement comes from head coach Ritchie Mckay. “Coach does a good job of just keeping the guys focused. Obviously, it’s a long season, but just having them competing every day, giving our best every day, win the day. If you look too far ahead, the details can get lost. Coach has done a great job with that.”
Still learning in the 3rd year of the Pack
When Coach McKay returned to Liberty in April 2015, he vowed to bring Tony Bennett’s pack line defense with him. Over the past two years, the Flames defense has seen stark improvement, finishing 86th in scoring defense in 2015-16 and 19th last year. Those two national finishes are the highest a Liberty team has finished in scoring defense dating back to as far as the NCAA online database goes. Despite the improvement, the team says there’s still a lot to learn with the pack.
“Everyone’s still learning more and more about the pack,” Cabbil said. “The more you’re in it, the more you learn. I’ve been in it for 2 years, and I’m still learning more about it that just makes it better. I think when everyone comes and gets the defense and gets it all put together, I think we’re hard to score on. I think that will take us farther than we can imagine.”
Kemrite agreed. “We’re still relatively new in the pack. The pack line’s a hard defense.”
It was the 3rd year at Virginia when the pack line took a massive jump, from finishing 54th and 36th in scoring defense during the first 2 years in the pack, to finishing 2nd during the 3rd season in Bennett’s system. Every year since then, the Cavaliers have finished in the top 11 nationally in scoring defense including 3 seasons where UVA ranked first.
“We want to be the best team in the league, and we also want to be the best defensive team in the league,” Caleb Homesley said. “We think if we are the best defensive team in the league, we’re going to have a pretty good shot.”
Cabbil looks to step into Dawson’s shoes
Liberty returns 4 starters from a season ago, but must replace John Dawson who started all 35 games last year. He averaged 8.5 points per game and led the team with 148 rebounds and 93 assists, but he was also a team captain and leader both on and off the court. Cabbil will look to step into that role more during his 3rd season with the program.
“It’s crazy Lovell is going to be a junior,” Coach Getter said. “It seems like yesterday we had just gotten a job here, and we were walking around showing him campus, him and his family. I think just the advantage he has of being able to play for 2 years, play a lot of minutes as a freshman and sophomore, you hope that translates into him being a little more comfortable and being more of a leader, especially now that John is gone. Maybe, now he can take a little bit more of a leadership role. It’s not his personality where he’s not very vocal to begin with, but he’s been more vocal so far, especially this past summer and fall.”
Cabbil says he’s been working on being more of a vocal leader around the team this offseason, especially around the younger guys. If any of them have any questions on what the team does, on offense or defense or even in the weight room or while watching film, he’s made himself available for them to come and talk to him.
“John was a big part of what we did,” Cabbil explained. “He was leading and scoring and rebounding and assisting. I feel like me and Georgie have an opportunity to come in, and I think we’re ready for it. We’ve been practicing getting our chemistry down, just looking to be in the backcourt together. I think we’ll be ready for it.”
Pacheco-Ortiz uses international experience to improve his game
Point guard Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz completed this summer for his native Puerto Rico in the FIBA U19 World Cup. He played in 7 games and averaged 10.7 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 3.6 assists while continually matching up with professional and other Division I players from around the world.
It’s been non-stop basketball for Pacheco-Ortiz since he arrived at Liberty a year ago. From the Costa Rica trip prior to the season starting last year, to his freshman campaign where he led the team in minutes played, and then practice with the national team started immediately following the school year.
“I think that international experience for him,” Getter said, “he’s playing against grown men. He’s come back more confident. He’s just such a great kid and a winner. He competes in every little thing. I think he’s taking more of an ownership in the leadership aspect as well. As a point guard, that’s vital.”
No more man bun for Kemrite
Ryan Kemrite enjoyed a very successful junior season when he led the team with 13.3 points per game while also being one of the most efficient offensive players in the country. He did that last year while supporting a man bun most of the season, but the man bun is no more.
“No man bun,” Kemrite quipped. “LUPD said if I don’t get buckets, they will get me extensions.”