After winning 20 games for the first time since 2009 and advancing to the CIT last season, Liberty looks to take another step forward in 2017-18. That road continues with the first official practice on Friday, and the team is confident that the experienced gained in 2016-17 will help them continue to improve as they begin Coach McKay’s 3rd season.
“It’s invaluable having the opportunity to compete in the postseason and play in a win or go home format,” assistant coach Kyle Getter said. “We had that in the conference tournament, but we didn’t perform the way we wanted. We got another chance playing in the CIT, and being able to win 2 games in that and have that feeling of what its like to win a postseason game, I think is a huge advantage.”
The Flames return its top 3 scorers and 4 of 5 starters from a team that was 21-14 overall and 14-4 in Big South play. Even with that experience, the team only has one senior and two juniors on its roster.
“We have a huge advantage that we have a young core group that has played a lot of minutes,” Getter explained. “That doesn’t happen a lot. Teams (with a lot of returners) are typically older in juniors and seniors, but our freshmen had to play a lot last year. We want to grow old with these guys. At the mid-major level, teams usually win with juniors and seniors, and I think for us to have the kind of year we did last year was a huge step in the right direction.”
Starters Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz and Lovell Cabbil return to form a solid nucleus in the backcourt, while Kemrite and Myo-Baxter Bell return at forward. This group combined to start 122 games while averaging 39.5 points and 12.5 rebounds a season ago.
“With Georgie and Myo being on the all-newcomer team, and then Lovell, I think he’s made a case as being one of the elite defenders in the conference,” Getter said of the core returning, “and then, Kemrite stepping into a scoring role last year especially when Caleb went down with the injury. So, we have a great core group. I think we just got a really good core group of guys, who have had a taste of it, and they’re hungry for more.”
Adding to that core group is the familiar face of Caleb Homesley who was leading the team in all major statistical categories before succumbing to injury against Princeton in December 2016. While Homesley isn’t a full go in practice just 9 months after tearing his ACL, he has been doing some individual work. He could be available at the start of the season for some spot minutes with hopefully a full return in December.
“It was definitely difficult,” Homesley said of his injury, “because I felt like personally I was playing at my highest level. Our team was going to take off, and I think, when I got hurt, it disappointed me that I wasn’t going to be there to help the team take off like they did. But everything happens for a reason, I just believe that it was for the good.”
Redshirt-junior Ezra Talbert returns after playing in 31 games a season ago. He has seen playing time in 68 games during his Liberty career. 6’7″ Bradley transfer Scottie James is eligible this year after sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer requirements. James played in 30 of 32 games as a true freshman with the Braves in 2015-16, and he provides the team with another body in the post that has the ability to defend in the paint and also stretch opposing team’s defenses with his 3-point shooting touch.
“Scottie being able to learn our system last year,” Getter said, “and sit out I think was huge. You look at him, the job he has done in the weight room with Coach Barrera, his body, it looks great.”
A quintet of freshmen join the team this year in Isaiah Williams, Keegan McDowell, Elijah Cuffee, Brendan Newton, and Jay Barber. Williams is a redshirt-freshman transfer from Akron who is immediately eligible after not playing last season. The 6’7″ native of Dayton, Ohio looks to make an immediate impact on his new team.
“This is a tough kid,” Coach Getter said of Williams. “He will bring another level of toughness to our team. Gritty, with the ability to defend multiple positions, has the ability to score. If you look at him, he doesn’t look like a typical freshman, just from a physical standpoint. I think him being a year older will certainly help him, being a little bit more mature. I think he just adds another dimension to us on both sides of the ball.”
At 6’6″ and 6’4″ respectively, McDowell and Cuffee are pushing for playing time on the wing during their true freshmen campaigns. McDowell helped lead Moeller High School in Cincinnati to a state runner-up finish as a senior while earning Second Team All-USA Ohio honors. Cuffee is originally from West Virginia, but transferred to Liberty Christian Academy in Lynchburg for his senior year of high school. He scored over 1,300 points in 3 years at Poca High School while leading the team to a 77-5 record.
“With Keegan coming from a winning program in Cincinnati, Moeller High School, and his ability to see things that happen before they happen, his basketball IQ is off the charts. He’s another guy that can stretch the floor with his ability to shoot. Then, you have the warrior, competitive in Elijah Cuffee who is like a Swiss Army Knife. He does a lot of things well.”
Newton is expected to redshirt this season as he looks to grow into his body, while Jay Barber, the son of former Athletic Director Jeff Barber, joins the program as a sharp-shooter.
“Brendan Newton,” Getter stated, “being 7’2″, you can’t coach that as a rim protector. Jay Barber is another guy that can stretch the floor with his ability to shoot.”
Coach Getter says this team has more depth than either of the two previous seasons. The competition during offseason workouts, which will carry over into practice, has been intense.
“Everyone’s competing for the things that we do,” Pacheco-Ortiz said. “We want to win all the time, that’s one thing that separates us from other teams is our competitiveness. We try to do it every day in practice, everywhere, in the class room, every day in the weight room. We just want to compete and get better every day.”
Not only does the team have more depth, but also more versatility with several guys on the roster that can play and defend multiple positions.
“I think our versatility is always going to be a problem,” Baxter-Bell said. “Our team, we’ve got players that can guard a certain position, but also might not play that position on the offensive end. We’ll be able to use different strategies and different lineups to our advantage.”
Liberty opens practice on Friday in preparation for the season opener on November 10th against Clarks Summit at 7pm in the Vines Center.