It’s been nearly a week since the Liberty basketball season came to an end and I needed that time to be able to process all of my thoughts. This year was the most fun I’ve ever had following a team, and I can’t exactly put my finger on why.

Perhaps it is because of the people I got to spend most of the season with. It’s partly due to how good this Flames’ team was even though they fell short of their ultimate goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament for a fourth time in five seasons. I think the biggest reason why I enjoyed this season so much is because of who made up this team. They are all so easy to root for and I’m glad they represent my alma mater.

The season began with an easy win over Regent way back on November 7th. It finally came to an end in the Kohl Center in Madison, Wisconsin on Sunday, March 19th as the Flames fell to Wisconsin, 75-71, in the 2nd round of the NIT.

Following the win over Regent, the Flames traveled to Alabama to take on the Crimson Tide. I knew ‘Bama was going to be a good team this year, but I never anticipated they would be a 1-seed and be the favorite to win the national championship. When Liberty lost by nearly 40 that night, as I watched the game from a hotel room in New York on my way to the football game at UConn, it felt like a big gut punch. Was this team going to be able to figure it out and compete for a championship?

After a 2-3 start, I wasn’t very positive. Yes, there was still a long ways to go, but turnovers were an issue and the Flames were having to rely on a true freshman point guard that skipped his senior year of high school. That would certainly come back to bite the team. Right?

Part of that early start included an all-timer against Southern Miss at Liberty Arena. I have to be honest that I missed that game. My family and I were at a concert and I was following the game on my phone. Remember the 26-0 run to tie the game sparked by an insanely hot Brody Peebles? Of course, the Flames would lose that one despite 24 points and 6 of 7 shooting from three from the Hartselle, Alabama native.

At that point in time, I don’t think any of us realized where this season – this team – would lead us. Certainly not to 27 wins and the highest ever ranking in KenPom and NET in program history.

The Flames would win 17 of their next 19 games and did so in convincing manner. The streak started with a win over eventual Missouri Valley regular season champ Bradley and was arguably the greatest extended stretch of Liberty basketball we have ever seen.

During that time, Liberty dominated, especially on their home floor, picking up wins over Lipscomb and Jacksonville State by a combined 63!! points. The Bisons would go on to finish in the top half of the ASUN and advanced to the semifinals. JSU didn’t have the season most expected but they were the reigning conference champs.

One of the things that defined the season for Liberty was it’s road contests. 7 of the team’s 9 losses on the season came in true road contests while the other two losses were on a neutral floor against eventual NCAA Tournament team Northwestern and the aforementioned Southern Miss game. 2 of those losses came at Kennesaw State – more on that later.

Once Darius McGhee announced he was returning to Liberty for his final year of eligibility, this season was always going to be defined by him. Yes, as expected, he had another record-breaking season on the court and continued to set career records that will never be touched again.

He became just the second Liberty basketball player to be receive All-American honors at the Division I level as he got the recognition by the Associated Press as an honorable mention nominee. Throughout the season, McGhee always mentioned that his biggest motivator to return was to try to help his teammates, especially the freshmen and sophomores who have never done it before, get to the NCAA Tournament and taste some of that success.

That goal was not realized, but nobody on the roster will call the season a disappointment. McGhee’s presence made everyone better and will have a lasting impact on the program. Look no further than Colin Porter, a fellow 5’9″ guard who got a year to learn under and beside the great McGhee. Porter, and Liberty, will be much better off by having that experience.

Speaking of Porter, the impact he made on this team is the biggest differentiation that helped push the team from being 22-11 and the #124 ranked team a season prior to winning 27 games and being ranked in the top 50 across the board this season.

He helped shoulder the ball-handling load, lessening the burden on McGhee and Kyle Rode. Porter was also able to create shots for himself and others, something Liberty lacked last year from players not named Darius McGhee. Over the final 8 games of the season, Porter never had more than 1 turnover in a game and had a total of 4 turnovers during that span. That’s elite play by a freshman point guard when the stakes were the highest.

As the calendar turned to January and conference play wore on, it became clear that Liberty and Kennesaw State were the clear top two teams in the league this season. Both teams had set themselves apart with just one early league loss and the showdown on Feb. 16 was looming.

With the addition of Queens and Austin Peay to the ASUN this season, the conference had 14 members and there was no longer the option to play a balanced schedule with every member playing everyone else in the league home and away. The conference elected to go away from divisions and play seemingly random schedules. This resulted in everyone playing just five league members twice while the other eight were played just once.

Unfortunately, this meant that the Flames and Owls would only meet once and that game happened at the KSU Convocation Center. The winner of that game was likely to win the 1-seed and be able to play at home throughout the conference tournament.

Despite leading by as many as 14 and by 9 with less than 6 minutes to play, Liberty was unable to maintain that lead while playing in a hostile environment. It meant that if these teams met in the conference championship game, as they did, it would once again be played at Kennesaw.

As difficult as the path is for teams in one-bid leagues to make the NCAA Tournament, it’s unfortunate that the Flames never had the opportunity to get a crack at the Owls on their home floor. If the schedule makers had that game on Feb. 16 pegged to be in Lynchburg rather than Georgia, we could all be looking at the end of this season much differently. That’s just how the cookie crumbles sometimes though.

Liberty still had other opportunities. A win over Eastern Kentucky or Lipscomb earlier in the season ultimately would have pushed the Flames into the 1-seed, as well. Winning 15 of 18 games in an ASUN that was better than it’s ever been during Liberty’s time was a feat in itself though.

6 teams in the ASUN ended up ranked in the top 200 in KenPom. That’s easily the most in any single season over the five years Liberty has been in the conference. Last year, only three teams were in the top 200 while in 2020-21 and 2019-20 had two teams each finish in the top 200. The Flames’ first year in the league in 2018-19 saw four teams in the top 200. The league this year was certainly deeper and more balanced than it has been in previous seasons.

The comeback against Southern Miss early in the season was used in a huddle by Coach Ritchie McKay in the ASUN Tournament Semifinals. The Flames had fallen behind Eastern Kentucky by 13 midway through the first half. McKay wrote “26” on the whiteboard, referencing the team’s 26-0 run to comeback and tie that game up in the same venue just a couple months prior.

Liberty would storm back and trim the deficit to just 2 by halftime from a packed Liberty Arena. The game would go back and forth throughout the first half of the second period until the Flames took a 61-58 lead with just over 6 minutes to play. The lead would not change hands again as Liberty advanced to its 5th conference championship game in six seasons. That’s something that only 7 other teams in the country have done under one coach during the past six years. The others? Gonzaga, Houston, San Diego State, Vermont, Colgate, Norfolk State, and North Dakota State.

In the rematch with KSU in the title game, unfortunately, Darius McGhee had one of the worst shooting performances of his career as he was 0-for-11 from behind the arc. He still finished with 14 points as he was able to get into the paint and attack the rim.

It was Kyle Rode, the always reliable senior forward, that Liberty relied on throughout the afternoon in a wonderful and not so friendly environment. Rode carried the team with 23 points while making 4 of 7 from three in the game. He kept the team in the game when everyone else was struggling to find a rhythm on offense.

His three-pointer gave Liberty a 53-51 lead with 7:35 left in the contest, but Kennesaw State responded with an 11-1 run to take a seven point lead at the three-minute mark. The Flames would inch back in the game, eventually cutting the deficit to just three in the final seconds. Porter would step up and drain the biggest shot of his young career, a three pointer from the wing, to tie the game with 23 seconds left.

We all know how the story played out though, as KSU’s Terrell Burden got a foul call with 0.7 seconds left. The senior point guard would make his first free throw to send the Owls to the Big Dance for the first time in the program’s history.

This Kennesaw State team was as good as any Liberty had seen in the ASUN since the 2018-19 Lipscomb team. The Owls finished 15-1 on their home floor while finishing the season 26-9. Their losses included VCU, Florida, San Diego State, and Indiana, all teams that advanced to postseason play, four of them in the NCAA Tournament. KSU was also just minutes away from a first round tournament upset against 3-seed Xavier.

For the Flames, despite a top 50 national ranking and no bad losses, it was the lack of marquee wins that kept them from having any real shot at an at-large. Liberty, and other mid-majors like them, don’t get the opportunities against Quad 1 and Quad 2 opponents like the high-majors do. It makes the at-large chances virtually non-existent without running the table in the non-conference with perhaps only 1-2 slip-ups in league play.

Getting an at-large to the NIT was a milestone accomplishment for the program though. That tournament doesn’t have the same luster that it used to have, but it is still a nice consolation prize for having a very good season. Having the chance to play Villanova, at home, and Wisconsin doesn’t happen under normal circumstances.

The NIT appearance and subsequent win over ‘Nova helped ease the sting slightly from not getting to the NCAA Tournament. The Flames were also only one Rode made three-pointer away from perhaps advancing to the NIT Quarterfinals and extending the season a little bit further.

A big advantage of the extra experience of playing in the NIT was the continued development of Zach Cleveland. The 6’7″ forward averaged 6.7 points and 7 rebounds per game over the last three games of the season against Kennesaw State, Villanova, and Wisconsin. His stat line against Villanova was especially impressive, as he finished with 6 points, a career-high 12 rebounds, and 5 assists. His development, along with Porter, should be huge for the Flames moving into 2023-24 and beyond.

An ongoing debate over the last several weeks of the season was whether or not this team is the best in school history. In order to answer that question, we must first grapple with the question as to whether or not a team can be great and not win a championship.

How do you view the 2007 New England Patriots that were a perfect 16-0 in the regular season before losing in the Super Bowl?

What about the 2016 Golden State Warriors who were the defending champions, had a 73-9 record in the regular season, and led Cleveland 3-1 in the Finals before dropping 3 straight?

It happens in college too. The 1994 UNLV and 2015 Kentucky teams both were undefeated before losing in the Final Four.

Of course, winning a championship and achieving the team’s goals is a huge part of having a successful season and being considered one of the best ever. But, in my opinion, not winning a championship doesn’t disqualify a team from still being great and one that should be praised.

Based on the computer metrics, this year’s team is the best ever. I wouldn’t personally give it that title without winning the championship. I think the 2018-19 team holds that distinction with its two wins at Lipscomb and the win over Mississippi State in the NCAA Tournament.

The 2019-20 team also has a strong case with a 30-4 overall record and a championship. They are tough to judge without getting the opportunity to play in the Big Dance as it was canceled due to COVID. After those two teams is where I think this year’s team can begin to be argued for. Some may take one of the other championship teams over this year’s squad, and understandably so.

One thing that is true, the Flames have competed for a conference championship over the past six years, and the past five seasons we have seen Liberty’s best teams in program history. How many other teams in the country can say that? An argument can be made that the five best teams in school history were over the past five seasons. It’s been a fun ride and what Coach McKay has done with this program cannot be overstated.

Regardless of where you may personally rank this year’s team, they treated us to a fun four months and it’s one that will long be remembered. We now turn our attention to the transfer portal and next year’s roster and team but we do it with the lasting memories from this year’s team.

Until next season. It can’t get here soon enough.