Last year has been well documented. Best season in school history. Program record 29 wins. First ever NCAA Tournament win. Regular season conference title. ASUN Tournament title. Win at UCLA.
But it is LAST year.
“I think it’s a falsity that you can take a team, especially a team that people liked or appreciated, that won (29) games and just replace the players that are leaving with new players or existing players to play the same role,” Coach McKay said. “(It’s) not possible. I’m old enough in this profession to not even try to do that. Every team is different, and every player has a different set of skills that we deem as valuable.”
We’re destined to hear countless quotes like that from McKay over the next several months of him downplaying the team’s expectations for the 2019-20 season, but the reality is those expectations are about to be stratospheric.
What Liberty did last year was really a year ahead of schedule. The Flames had a very junior-laden team in 2018-19 led by first-team all-ASUN members Scottie James and Caleb Homesley. Lipscomb was the senior-laden team that was expected to repeat, but James, Homesley, and company would have none of it.
So, this year, with James, Homesley, and the rest of the crew back, Liberty will certainly be the overwhelming preseason favorite to repeat as ASUN champs. Anything less would be seen as a colossal failure.
“I think each year is different,” McKay continued. “I think that we would be naive to think that chemistry can be bottled. For us, what is important even though we have an experienced team is that we stay committed to being about the process and not taking anything for granted, not taking the little details that have added value to our person or to our program lightly. For our basketball program, we just want to keep getting better everyday.”
Despite all the returnees, Liberty still must replace Lovell Cabbil and Keenan Gumbs. Cabbil was a stalwart for the Flames since McKay returned 4 years ago. He was the first recruit to commit to McKay after his 6-year run at Virginia, and Cabbil became a starter from day 1. Gumbs, despite being on campus for just one season, made a lasting impact on the team with his effort and contributions off the bench.
“As a team we’re trying to reset and get ready for next year,” junior guard Elijah Cuffee said. “We’re re-implementing the same system – same defensive concepts and offensive concepts – and just introducing the freshmen and get them caught up to speed before we start practice. The knowledge everybody already has of the system helps us out. The fact that we only lost 3 players last year and keeping everybody is a big deal. I think that’s a big deal in practice.”
Liberty has brought in three freshmen to replace Cabbil, Gumbs, and Zach Farquhar. Highlighting this year’s freshman class is Kyle Rode, the highest rated signee in Liberty basketball history according to 247Sports. The 6’7″ forward averaged 23.2 points and 9.6 rebounds per game during his senior season for Lexington Christian Academy. He is also the school’s all-time leading scorer with 2,498 career points. He will be expected to come in and immediately challenge for the 5th starting spot along the 4 returning starters – Homesley, James, Cuffee, and Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz.
“I really think it’s a brotherhood,” Rode said of his new teammates. “It’s a family. A lot of people say that, but it means more here. Everybody plays for each other. Everybody sacrifices for each other. I think that was apparent all throughout (last) season. Every one of those guys could be at any other mid-major program and probably average 15+ points if they wanted to, but the sacrifice and willingness to win here last year was really special.”
Shiloh Robinson and Marten Maide are the other two freshmen McKay brought in. Robinson is a 6’7″ forward from Kearney, Nebraska. He was ranked as the number 2 player in the state and has turned heads during practice this summer. Maide is a 6’5″ guard originally from Estonia but played his high school ball at Carmel Christian School in Charlotte. He helped lead Carmel Christian to the 2018 NCISAA 2A State title and a national ranking of #43. Maide also has some international experience playing with the U18 Estonia national team.
“They look good,” Cuffee said of the freshmen. “That’s one of the main reasons this summer has been so competitive. They’ve come in ready, wanting to win, and wanting to prove a point. They look good and it’s helped us out a lot.”
The way McKay has built this program, taking the slow and steady long term approach, it has been done to last. We could all look back on the 2018-19 season as the beginning of an ASUN dynasty and the launch of the Liberty basketball program onto the national spotlight. For that to happen, the 2019-20 version of the Flames cannot grow complacent and must continue to build on last year’s success.
“It’s hard to get the NCAA Tournament,” McKay said. “I’ve coached a lot of years and it’s really hard to get there. There’s only one team from the ASUN that typically is going to get a bid and it’s a terrific conference. Whenever you’ve been somewhere before you kind of know what to expect, but it doesn’t mean it will turn out the same way as it did in the past. I hope we have the maturity to be in the process and not be results based because if we do we have a chance to field a pretty competitive team.”