Ever since Liberty lost at North Florida last month, the return date has been circled on the schedule. Well, for fans at least, but Liberty’s coaches and players are downplaying the importance of the first place showdown.

“It’s easy for us to see as fans, coaches, players, this is a big game because we’re at the top of the standings,” said Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay.  “But it’s one game. The last two Atlantic Sun Conference Champions, the teams that advanced to the NCAA Tournament, were both road teams in the conference tournament finals. (Thursday’s game) ensures nothing, win or lose.”

The message from the players was the same this week.

Caleb Homesley: “Everyone looks at this game like it’s our biggest game on the schedule, when really it’s just another game.”

Myo Baxter-Bell: “To me, it’s just another game. It’s just another game to get better, another game to test and see who we are.”

That’s great and all, but this game IS different. This isn’t 7-18 NJIT or 8-20 FGCU. It’s North Florida. The Ospreys are 18-10 overall and currently in first place in the ASUN at 11-2, just half a game ahead of the 10-2 Flames.

If Liberty wants to win the ASUN regular season title and own home court throughout the ASUN Tournament, a win Thursday is imperative.

A win would push the Flames ahead of North Florida with just a few games remaining in the regular season. Liberty would also own any tiebreaker between the two schools as the Flames NET ranking of 54 is significantly higher than UNF’s 163.

However, a loss Thursday night would be devastating to Liberty’s chances of getting the 1-seed in the ASUN Tournament as the Flames would effectively be two games out of first place, since UNF would win the tiebreaker, and the Ospreys would only have two games left – vs Lipscomb and at Stetson. Expecting them to lose both, while Liberty wins its final three games, is extremely unlikely.

Liberty’s loss to North Florida earlier this season was the Flames’ first loss to an ASUN team in 10 tries, and it quickly quieted all the talk about Liberty possibly going unbeaten in conference play.

“Often times losses in your season, especially when you’re winning a lot, get your attention more than others,” McKay said.

The Flames think they didn’t play their best basketball in that loss and hope to play closer to their potential Thursday night.

“I thought that we didn’t play our best basketball,” Homesley said when asked about the previous meeting with the Ospreys. “That was on both ends of the court. We had scoring droughts, we had lapses in our defense where we weren’t connected. Liberty beat Liberty. So, this time around we’ve got to clean up the things we need to do. We’ve got to prepare (this week) and then get ready to play. For us, as long as we’re prepared, we know what we have to do, I think we’ll come out with the win.”

Because of that loss, this game has a lot more riding on it than if Liberty was still undefeated in conference play and had already wrapped up the regular season title.

“The fact that there is hype around (this game) is a good thing,” said McKay. “It means we’re doing something right, that warrants some attention, yet in the big scheme of things I just want to get better. If we’re better in March, then we’ve got a chance to do some things that every program wants to do.”

This is not the first time Liberty has had a critical home game in conference play. We all remember what happened last year when Lipscomb came to the Vines Center and both teams were tied for first place.  The Flames are hopeful it has learned from that experience.

“We’ve been in this situation before,” Myo Baxter-Bell said. “We let a little bit of that (Lipscomb) game being built up get to us. Having that experience from last year coming to this year, all of us got that experience. It’s big. We’re trying to make sure we don’t let the game get bigger than what we do and make sure everybody stays in our lane and do what we do and not get outside of ourselves.”