The Liberty men’s basketball team surpassed even the most optimistic expectations last season as they finished the year the #5 seed in the Big South Tournament following a 10-8 regular season conference record. All analysts and publications picked the Flames to finish dead last by a wide margin in the 11 team Big South a year ago, but behind first-year head coach Ritchie McKay the Flames rallied with a 7 game winning streak in the heart of conference play. It led to McKay being named the Big South’s Coach of the Year, and increased expectations for his 2nd season. Some early season publications have pegged Liberty to finish 2nd behind Winthrop, but the Flames aren’t paying attention to those expectations.
“I didn’t put a whole lot of stock in (preseason expectations last year), and this year there’s no difference,” McKay said. “Although I think we’ve improved, I really think it’s Winthrop and a lot of other teams that have a chance to challenge them for a league title. If we’re one of those teams, then that would be sooner than we probably expected, but, that being said, it will always be our expectation to pursue a conference championship.”
Senior John Dawson had the same thoughts on this year’s expectations. “We don’t really deal with them (preseason expectations). Honestly, we just keep our heads down, and we keep working. Those are preseason rankings, we’re not basing anything off of rankings. If they think we’re 2nd, then that’s their opinion, that’s their vote, but we’re just going to do what we do. Keep working, keep playing hard, and keep building our culture to honor God.”
The Flames have 7 returnees from last year’s squad, including starters Dawson, Lovell Cabbil, and Caleb Homesley. Veterans A.C. Reid and Ryan Kemrite also return. Additionally, McKay has brought in a flux of 8 newcomers, and it has led to an increased level of competition in preseason practices.
“Competition every day. People going at it head to head,” Dawson explained. “It’s healthy competition at that. Everybody’s playing for the best chance to win, for the best chance to be on the court. There’s an understanding that if you’re not doing what you need to do on and off the court, then you will not be playing. So, when everyone understands that, and everybody is understanding that, it brings our team more together and it’s fun to compete against each other everyday. We all like it, we enjoy it.”
“It’s a noticeable difference with the amount of players we have, number one, legitimate players, ” McKay said. “By that I mean, guys that we recruited, scholarship-ed, and so on. It’s been a really good group to work with out of the gates.”
McKay also highlighted the increased level of competition, and says it’s something he’s aimed to have since he’s returned to Liberty. “I claim to be from Seattle. I’m a huge Seahawks fan. I know one of the things Pete Carroll infiltrated into his program was a spirit of competition, and I mean a healthy spirit of competition. That me versus you, yeah we’re competing for the same thing, roles, minutes, etc., but I want to run to that competition because you can help me get better.”
Liberty hopes that they will be more productive and efficient in the 2nd year in McKay’s system. He brought the pack-line defense with him from Virginia, and he said last year it takes a couple of years to learn the system inside and out.
“The pack defense is an acquired taste,” McKay stated. “You really have to stick with it in order to be good. We have an additional staff member that can help contribute, Vic Sfera, who was at the University of Virginia. What we’ve seen, is there’s a better recognition from everyone, from manager to head coach, in our system, which is a very healthy thing. We don’t have the habits yet, in my mind, that are necessary to compete for a championship. Once we build those habits, which hopefully will happen sooner than later, then I’ll answer questions about being a champion or what it means to cut a net. Until then, we’ll be in progress.”
Having one year under their belt in this system has really helped the returnees with their understanding of it as they enter year two. Rather than concentrating on the general concepts, the Flames can now concentrate on some of the finer details as they continue to make improvements on defense.
“We can improve upon being more together on defense, moving as one, instead of my man basketball,” Dawson said. “Being more together, being more in the gaps, being more detailed, getting defensive rebounds, limiting offensive rebounds. So, all of the little things we can get better at. It’s going to get better because it’s going to be my 2nd year, a lot of the other guys’ 2nd year, so we will improve in those categories.”
The 7 returnees have been a big help to the newcomers in learning the system as well. Dawson said, “Guys are coming up to me and Caleb and Lovell already asking, ‘Ok, what is coach looking for here?’ Just getting a players perspective on things. It’s a real big help to have experienced guys helping the younger guys because then it’s not like you fend for yourself and do what Coach says. It’s more of a, ‘Ok, I’m going to help you out, I’m going to help you succeed. When you succeed it helps us succeed. We move as a family.'”
Caleb Homesley agreed. “I think that us knowing the defense and helping the freshmen out, not just McKay helping out. Some of the freshmen might not want to go ask McKay, but they definitely come to us and ask us. Especially me, John, and (Ryan) Kemrite. They will definitely ask us, ‘What do we need to do in this situation?’ I’ve seen it in practice. I’ve seen some of the guys go up to John, and say, ‘Ok, what do I do in this situation? When the ball’s here and my man’s here.'”
The Flames will begin to see exactly how much progress and improvement they’ve made when they open the season on November 11th against Cairn and 4 days later when they host VCU.