The past two weeks, the Flames took their talents to north of South Beach, securing two wins. The Jacksonville Dolphins and the North Florida Ospreys proved unable to get the best of the streaking Flames. What is usually a daunting trip for Flames fans (as the men had not won a game on North Florida’s court in conference play) was a celebratory jaunt, as the curse of the Osprey was broken. Additionally, the Flames were able to handle the Stetson Hatters this past Thursday with no problems, winning by nearly 30 points.
The Flames fought through a sporadic game against Jacksonville, a physical, ticky-tack matchup against North Florida, and a somewhat mundane game on Thursday to secure all three wins. Last week’s games were not the prettiest competitions for the Flames, but there were continual moments of elite ASUN play that shone through. Liberty consistently proved they were in control of both games, and while there were a few lead changes early in both games, the mental toughness and composure of the Flames proved too much for all three Florida schools.
- Blake Preston is coming on strong. There was much love for Blake last week from ASOR and the Liberty Twitter-verse. Preston is certainly deserving. Last week, alone, Blake averaged nearly 14 points per game, six rebounds, and one block per contest. Even more, Blake was constantly doing the dirty work, putting pressure on the opponent’s frontcourt, drawing fouls, and locking down the paint. You really can’t ask for more out of your big-men. I have said before, and I will continue to say, Blake is a really great fit for ASUN play. I think there is a part of him that was sparked by the Ahsan-Asadullah-(Senior Center for the Lipscomb Bisons)-versus-himself chatter that brought out the best in the big-man. He’s also been able to bring his experience and skill to the forefront while starting for the Flames. This is serving well to set the tone for Shiloh Robinson (who had 17 points and 10 rebounds against North Florida) and supporting bigs so there is no drop-off. In other words, his competitive fire is bringing out the best in his teammates. He also led the way in both contests in terms of swagger, making sure the Flames knew they were there to compete and should have no problem securing wins as long as they stuck to the game-plan. He started and continued his contributions against the Hatters, but the nature of the competition did not demand as much from him. He scored four points and was all over the glass, securing nine rebounds. It’s exciting to see Blake getting such solid playing time and making the most of it.
- Isiah Warfield continues to play an important support role. Warfield continues to find himself in the lineup, supporting the role of Joseph Venzant as lock-down-defender. I will cover Venzant below, but Isiah has come off the bench with electric hustle and energy. The Flames are gifted to have two ball-hawking defenders supporting each other. Warfield was able to add 10 points to the rotation against Jacksonville, helping cover Venzant during injury and foul troubles. Warfield continues to excel in drawing charges. He and Brody Peebles are both incredibly capable in this area of their defense, but Warfield has been doing an exceptional job of getting under ball-handlers’ skin and forcing frustration fouls (thinking of that “little” incident against Central Arkansas…). Unfortunately, Isiah was sidelined for Thursday’s game, but there was wisdom in that decision. While Stetson is worthy of every ASUN opponent’s respect, it was a smart decision for him to air on the side of caution and rest for Saturday’s competition. The depth of this year’s team at the wing is very helpful, as guys can prioritize their health during this point of the season (Zach Cleveland has had to do the past couple of weeks).
- Joseph Venzant’s rebounding. This may not be a big deal to every fan, but the Flames’ starting wing Joseph Venzant grabbing 13 rebounds is significant. Joseph played only 23 minutes and was quite literally eating the glass. Venzant has been doing what he always does this season, quietly, without needing any fanfare. He takes care of his business, takes his defensive assignments personally, and plays the role of “lockdown corner” (think prime Darrelle Revis). He augmented these efforts with another solid five-rebound game against Stetson. His defensive and rebounding reliability continue to prove out. Look for the Midland, Texas native sophomore to have even more of these gritty, grind-it-out performances as the season continues. Lastly, I have taken notice of Joseph’s vocal leadership this season. He is an incredibly high IQ player and is starting to take on more of a role of contributing his thoughts and approach to his teammates. I love this. If there is one mindset I want to be caught by the Flames, it’s Venzant’s.
- Kyle Rode stabilizes. Everyone knows how affective Kyle is at leading the Flames and steering the ship. Rode crested double-digit scoring in each of the three contests, providing further scoring support in the Flames’ front court. Additionally, Rode continues to help with the distribution load. Even against North Florida, Kyle only played 19 minutes due to foul trouble and was still able to contribute significant numbers (14 points, four rebounds, one block). His leadership has been felt in the past three games as he leads the way with his aggression and focus. The Flames really needed his and Blake’s leadership against Jacksonville and North Florida. Liberty had some lulls early on against Stetson, but Rode was not having any lack-luster performances. He finished with 14 points and four assists.
The Flames continue their Florida campaign tonight against Florida Gulf Coast at 7PM EST on ESPN+. Here’s to hoping we see more of the same tonight.