Lovell Cabbil. Caleb Homesley. Myo Baxter-Bell. Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz. Scottie James. Elijah Cuffee.
When Ritchie McKay thinks about the building blocks of his program at Liberty, those are the names he first thinks of.
“When Rick Pitino had (John) Pelphrey, Travis Ford, Richie Farmer, that group that was expected to do nothing but changed the whole direction of Kentucky’s program, well, Elijah should be mentioned with (that group),” McKay said when asked about the senior guard. “His investment and his willingness to sacrifice, his toughness to do what’s really hard, has elevated and accelerated the growth of our program in a really special way.”
The 6’4″ guard is the epitome of Liberty’s championship DNA that McKay has instilled into his program. The Flames are 98-31 over the course of Elijah Cuffee’s career. The Flames are 8-1 in conference tournament games with Cuffee in the lineup and have advanced to the conference tournament championship game in each of his three previous seasons at Liberty.
That wasn’t the case for Liberty when Cuffee committed to the program in September 2015. He was one of the first commitments McKay picked up after being hired at Liberty April 1, 2015 with the program coming off three straight 20-loss seasons and a total of 84 losses in the prior four years.
“He embodied what we wanted to be about even if it was at his own expense,” McKay said of the defensive-minded Cuffee. “Now, granted, he’s benefited from that mindset in minutes, but the stuff that he’s done, the way he’s benfited us, it will last long after he’s gone.”
As a freshman, when McKay was in his third season with the Flames, Cuffee immediately bought into the Packline defense. He saw that as a way for him to get on the court and make an impact early and often. As a freshman, the Poca, West Virginia native played 24.1 minutes per game, 5th most on the team. Each of the past three seasons, Cuffee has finished in the top three in minutes played on the team.
“It started from me just wanting to play, just wanting to get on the court,” he said about his defensive prowess. “It’s how I found myself on the court here at Liberty, especially my freshman year. I think that’s just what’s kept me on the court. I know if I want to play, I’ve got to be good defensively. It’s just kinda over time become my thing.”
And he’s been good at it. Cuffee has been given the assignment of guard the opposing team’s top offensive player throughout much of his career. It’s a mantle he took over from Lovell Cabbil. Cuffee was named Preseason ASUN Defensive Player of the Year entering his senior campaign as many have begun to recognize his ability on that end of the court.
“I’m a big defensive guy,” Cuffee said. “I think defense wins you championships and gets you to the championship. It’s why we’ve been in it every year – because we’re really good defensively, in my opinion.”
The stats would back up his assertion. Liberty is currently third in the country in scoring defense, holding opponents to 58.5 points per game. The Flames have finished in the top 10 in scoring defense in each of Cuffee’s three previous seasons with the Flames, including the second best scoring defense a year ago holding opponents to 53.8 points per game.
“The first time I was here, I think we had a top 40 recruiting class or something like that,” said McKay. “Those guys were talented, really good players. We had something that we thought was going to be decent. Well, none of our recruiting classes since then have had any such fanfare, but having had that time at Virginia and seeing the importance of guys that would fit the system, I really think Elijah and Keegan (McDowell) and the aforementioned guys that have graduated, had so much to do with the building of this program that they deserve way more credit than they will ever get.”
Cuffee says one of the biggest takeaways from his time at Liberty will be the journals he kept while a student. Coach McKay and the rest of the coaching staff urges the team to put their thoughts on paper and write down what they have learned.
“The journals that I have, all of the nuggets that I’ve got here, lessons I’ve learned, I can look back at those and know I have a catalog of great knowledge that the coaches and people of LIberty has given me,” Cuffee said. “That’s one of my most important things I will be taking away from here.”
Last summer, Elijah suffered a personal tragedy when his older brother Jason Cuffee died in July. Jason was a firefighter in Charleston, West Virginia. He starred in both basketball and football at Poca High School before Elijah reached the high school ranks. Jason then went on to play basketball Cedarville.
Following his brother’s death, Elijah got a tattoo on his thigh with the number 10 in three different fonts – one in the font used on his Liberty jersey, and another one for his brother and his sister, Myra, as all three Cuffees wore the number while playing basketball.
“I think from now on, a lot of basketball is going to be me playing for my brother,” Elijah said. “It’s definitely going to be part of my motivation.”
He continued by saying it was his family, both biological in West Virginia and his teammates and coaches in Lynchburg, that has helped him get through these past several months.
“It was tough early on, but the family I had back in West Virginia and also my coaches I got here, they made it a lot easier,” he said. “Having someone to lean on, people to lean on, I think that’s what got me through it.”
Due to the NCAA not counting this basketball season against players’ eligibility, Cuffee could choose to return to the Flames next season. Regardless of whether or not he returns, the Liberty men’s basketball program is much better off from having Elijah part of the program.
“You don’t get many like him, you really don’t,” McKay said. “His competitiveness is at an elite level. His ability to know what’s needed at a given time and his defensive prowess has made us literally a conference champion contender each of his three and now four years. Most get seduced by the numbers – points per game, how many boards, how many assists – his value can’t be equated to the statistics other than the one most important statistic and that’s W’s. His influence on that outcome has been significant.”