Liberty basketball is set to embark on yet another season, this one the last ever in the Vines Center before the new Liberty Arena opens next door. The Flames, led by head coach Ritchie McKay, will see increased expectations this year. The expectations are higher than they ever have been after last season’s record-setting campaign.
The Flames entered the ASUN last year with relatively modest expectations, picked to finish 3rd in the ASUN preseason poll, receiving exactly zero first place votes, but Liberty would quickly surpass all expectations.
We got our first glimpse of what the team could do with a 77-70 road victory at Kent State in the third game of the season, followed by a nine point loss at Vanderbilt, but it was a 26-point thrashing of defending Sun Belt champ Georgia State when we all started to realize that this team could be different.
The win at UCLA in the non-conference finale set the team up for a tremendous run through the ASUN. The Flames went 14-2 in the regular season in its first year in the new league, finishing tied for first with defending champ Lipscomb. Liberty would then sweep the ASUN Tournament, including a win on the road at Lipscomb to secure the ASUN Tournament title. A first round upset of Mississippi State was the icing on the cake of the best season in program history.
The Flames arrived a season earlier than we anticipated. On the backs of four seniors, this is the year many expected Liberty to truly compete for a conference championship and to make noise in March. Now, the Flames will attempt to duplicate what they did a season ago.
POSITION PREVIEW: POINT GUARD
Projected Starter: Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz
Key Reserves: Darius McGhee, Josh Price, Colton Reed, Tytist Dean
The senior Pacheco-Ortiz has started 105 games in his Liberty career, a career that began with 122 consecutive minutes played without committing a turnover in January of his freshman campaign. He will end his career as the winningest player in program history, pretty remarkable for a kid who had exactly one scholarship offer out of high school. He’s been known to hit clutch shots throughout his career, none more clutch than his three-pointer late in the ASUN Championship game at Lipscomb.
Darius McGhee was the top freshman to come into the program last season, and he proved his worth in being a scoring punch off the bench immediately as he scored double figures in 11 of his first 16 games. He’s not really a true point guard, more of off guard, but he will likely get most of the minutes at point when GPO is off the floor. He will also get plenty of time alongside Pacheco, and could be a starter. The biggest thing for Darius in his second season is more consistency and improvement on defense. We know he can score, and score in bunches, but he has to be able to hold his own on the defensive end of the floor as well. He showed flashes of improvement down the conference stretch, and don’t forget he was probably the best player on the team in the 2nd round NCAA Tournament loss to Virginia Tech.
The son of former NBA player Mark Price, Josh Price, redshirted as a true freshman last year. Like McGhee, he’s better suited to play off the ball, but he could be called upon at times to play the point. As can be expected being the son of Mark, Josh’s strength is his three-point shooting. He may find it difficult finding playing time with all the veterans that return.
Colton Reed and Tytist Dean are walk-ons. Reed was a team manager last season, and impressed so much he was able to earn a spot on the roster. Dean was on the team last year but redshirted.
POSITION PREVIEW: WINGS
Projected Starters: Elijah Cuffee, Caleb Homesley
Key Reserves: Kyle Rode, Keegan McDowell, Marten Maide
The strength McKay has in this team is its versatility and its most notable on the wing. Every player at this position can move to guard or forward if needed. Cuffee has started 54 consecutive games, and he will take the role from Lovell Cabbil as the team’s top perimeter defender, certainly big shoes to fill. We could also see him take the next step on offense as well, he’s shown flashes before.
Preseason ASUN Player of the Year Caleb Homesley is back for his final round. This offseason, McKay called the versatile guard an NBA talent, and with his length he certainly has the potential. Homesley exploded onto the national scene with 30 points in Liberty’s first round upset of Mississippi State. Against the top 25 caliber teams is when Liberty needs Caleb to be at his best. That’s when he makes the Flames a top 25 team itself when he performs at his best.
We’ve talked a lot about Kyle Rode since he committed to Liberty, but I’m sure he’s tired of hearing about being the best recruit in school history and ready to showcase his ability on the court. Rode could end up in the starting lineup before the season is over, and he is one of those guys that could play just about any position on the court. He will rarely “wow” you with his play on the court, but he is always making the right play.
It’s hard to believe Keegan McDowell is already a junior, but he has 68 games under his belt. He has always been regarded as a three-point specialist, and has shot 37.1% from three for his career, but last season he also showed the ability to attack the basket off the dribble. He was the 9th member of the rotation last season and with Lovell Cabbil and Keenan Gumbs departing, he has the ability to move his way up the lineup.
Marten Maide is a true freshman who is expected to redshirt this season as he is recovering from knee surgery.
POSITION PREVIEW: FORWARDS
Projected Starters: Myo Baxter-Bell, Scottie James
Key Reserves: Blake Preston, Shiloh Robinson, Brendan Newton
We could see Myo Baxter-Bell as a starter or as the first man off the bench. He provides something different than Scottie James, and we could even see him playing with the ball in his hands as we did frequently last season. He has seen his scoring increase each and every season, as he was up to 7.9 points per game a season ago.
With the great game Homesley had in the NCAA Tournament against Mississippi State, it can be easy to forget about Scottie James. He did lead the team in scoring and rebounds, and if he stays healthy this season he will finish his career as the Liberty leader at the Division I level in rebounds. He could push towards 1,000 career rebounds in just three seasons after transferring from Bradley.
He may have redshirted last season, but it wasn’t because of Blake Preston’s inability to play. He has been going head-to-head against Scottie for more than a year now, and he’s actually a little bit taller and bigger than him.
Shiloh Robinson could end up redshirting, but similar to Preston last year, he could make an impact on the court during his true freshman season. He also has the ability to stretch the floor to beyond the three-point line and could also find some playing time on the wing.
He is the fan favorite as the Vines always erupts when the 7’2″ Brendan Newton enters the game. With the team having so much depth, it may be difficult for Newton to crack the everyday lineup this season.
TOP 10 GAMES ON THE SCHEDULE
10. at East Carolina (Nov. 16): This game is sneaky good. It will be Liberty’s first road challenge of the season against former FGCU head coach Joe Dooley and the Pirates. The game is next Saturday when the football team is on a bye – meaning it would be a perfect opportunity to make the short road trip.
9. at NJIT (Jan. 4): The Flames have to take on the Highlanders on the road just 48 hours after opening conference play in Fort Myers, Florida. A tough turnaround for Liberty against a very good NJIT squad that won 22 games a season ago and is expected to compete at the top of the conference again this season.
8. North Florida (Feb. 20): Lipscomb and North Florida are the only two ASUN teams that notched a win against the Flames last season, and UNF returns basically everybody. The Ospreys will be trying to pull a Liberty from last year and be the team to upset the defending champs. Big home date late in the season for the Flames.
7. Lipscomb (Jan. 18): It’s the first game between the budding rivals that had a couple classics last year, and Liberty will be looking for some revenge from the embarrassment suffered against the Bisons in the much anticipated home game a season ago.
6. at FGCU (Jan. 2): Once again Liberty opens ASUN play at FGCU, a perennial contender in the league. This time around it will be the entire ASUN trying to knock Liberty from its perch at the top of the standings.
5. at Vanderbilt (Dec. 14): It’s a rematch from last year’s 79-70 Vandy win in Nashville, this time the Commodores are coached by former NBA star Jerry Stackhouse. The Flames won’t be happy with a close loss this time.
4. Radford (Nov. 8): Home opener against an in-state and former conference rival. Two preseason conference favorites. Friday night. What else could you want?
3. at North Florida (Jan. 23): This will be the first meeting of the season for the top two preseason favorites in the ASUN. It’s also the site of one of only two conference losses for the Flames last year.
2. Grand Canyon (Dec. 8): This is virtually a home game for the Antelopes led by head coach Dan Majerle. If the teams were any closer to each other this could develop into a nice rivalry.
1. at LSU (Dec. 29): This will be Liberty’s only shot this season at a top 25 opponent, and the game is played on the same date as last year’s win at UCLA.
TOUGHEST STRETCH (DEC 8-JAN 4)
During this stretch the Flames will be away from home for 7 straight games beginning with a trip to Phoenix to take on Grand Canyon. The stretch also includes games at Vanderbilt, LSU, FGCU, and NJIT, as well as the DC Holiday Hoops Fest Tournament where the Flames will play Towson and then either Akron or Tulane in Washington, D.C.
Marten Maide: A 6’5″ guard originally from Estonia but played his high school ball at Carmel Christian School in Charlotte. He will likely redshirt this season as he recovers from knee surgery.
Colton Reed: sdf Reed is a walk-on who earned a spot after he impressed the coaching staff as a team manager last season. The 6’3″ guard played at Roanoke College during the 2017-18 season, averaging 5.3 points per game and finishing second in the ODAC in three-point field goals made.
Shiloh Robinson: The 6’7″ Robinson has impressed the coaching staff all offseason, and if McKay elects to play him this year he will provide depth in the interior.
Kyle Rode: One of the most anticipated freshmen to arrive on campus, the 6’7″ Rode will be the best player on the court at times for Liberty. With all the experienced returners, he won’t be expected to carry the load though as he can ease his way into the lineup.
TWO BIG QUESTIONS
1. How does Liberty handle the increased expectations?
Never has a Liberty team had as high of expectations as this team will face this season. Failing to make the NCAA Tournament will be seen as a failure, and coming from a traditional 1-bid league all it takes is one off night to ruin your season. The Liberty faithful should be delighted to have Ritchie McKay guiding the team this year. No other coach will be as prepared for this challenge than he will be. He also has the ability to rely on a very experienced team with 4 seniors and 2 juniors in the rotation.
2. Who will be the top challengers in the ASUN?
We expect North Florida to compete, but who else will be there? Lipscomb has a new coaching staff and almost entirely new roster. FGCU has a lot of new faces, as well, while NJIT will have to replace big man Abdul Lewis. We may not know the answer of this question until midway through the conference season.
Liberty was the ASUN Preseason favorite to repeat by any one who made a prediction. The Flames are also in the “others receiving votes” category in both the AP and Coaches Poll. Liberty is tied for 43rd in both polls based on the order of those receiving votes.
With an experienced head coach and veteran roster, the Flames will be able to successfully navigate the increased expectations and have an even better regular season this year than a season ago. I’ve got the Flames finishing the regular season at 27-4 overall and 15-1 in ASUN play.