Darius McGhee coming back and utilizing his COVID year of eligibility has gotten all the spotlight this offseason, but the Flames also welcome back mosst of its nucleus from the 2021-22 team.

Liberty returns seven of its eight rotation players from last season and over 80% of the team’s scoring as the Flames prepare for the 2022-23 men’s basketball season, the program’s fifth and final year in the ASUN before moving to Conference USA. However, it is the influx of three talented new freshmen that has head coach Ritchie McKay anxious for the season to begin with possibly his deepest Liberty team.

“What a fabulous group of young freshmen that we have,” McKay said on Thursday following a workout with the team. “I think it’s as good a class as we’ve signed. I think that’s what’s been the most enjoyable part thus far during the offseason.”

The Flames welcome three different pieces that are all talented in their own way. 5’11” Colin Porter is a true point guard that is quickly making an impact on the court this summer. 6’7″ Ben Southerland is one of the more talented shooters on the team as he can stretch the floor with his length. 6’7″ Zach Cleveland has the ability to push the team’s interior pieces for playing time.

As talented as they may be, it’s not like Liberty is void of talent and returning production. The freshmen are having to learn to adjust to that after being the stars of their respective high school teams.

“All of us were one of the go to guys in high school,” Porter said of the freshmen trio. “Now, it’s a completely new start. You’re the lower ranked guy. You’re trying to do something each day that can impress, but, more importantly, it’s not about any individual awards or anything, you’re just trying to go out and help the team win.”

Porter, originally part of the 2023 class before opting to reclassify and come to college a year ahead of schedule, chose Liberty over several offers including Marshall, Akron, Morehead State, Lipscomb, Western Carolina, Western Kentucky, and Radford. In his final year playing for Paul G. Blazer High School in Kentucky, Porter averaged 17.1 points, 6.9 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and 2.5 steals per game while shooting 55% from the field, 38% from three, and 86% from the charity stripe. His play helped earn him first-team all-state honors in Kentucky.

He has the talent and ability to provide something Liberty severely lacked last season. His ball-handling and play-making ability could help take the stress of Darius McGhee and Kyle Rode from also having to start the offense in the role of a point guard.

“I had an extra year, I could still be in high schoo, but that’s not what the Lord wanted for me,” said Porter. “I’m pretty honest, it was an easy decision. I was super blessed at my high school, but it’s a completely different grind (here). We’re waking up every morning and you just got to get to it and give it your best.”

Southerland, who originally committed to the College of Charleston and former Winthrop head coach Pat Kelsey, is from Cincinnati, Ohio and Sycamore High School, the same high school as former Liberty walk-on and current member of the Flames’ coaching staff Zach Farquhar. He was rated as a three-star prospect according to 247Sports with over a dozen Division I offers including Illinois State, Marshall, Tulsa, Iona, Belmont, Wright State, Akron, Stetson, Ohio, Toledo, College of Charleston, Winthrop, and Miami (OH).

He holds the school record at Sycamore for most three pointers made in a season and the record for most points in a game with 41. Southerland has immediately shown that ability to stretch the floor and create matchup problems for most teams with his size and offensive ability.

“In high school and AAU, it was mainly scoring for me and offense, but here all the attention is on defense. That’s the biggest thing that’s going to stand out. All the older guys are so good for (helping with) that.”

Cleveland signed with Liberty over offers from Western Carolina, Belmont, Illinois State, Southeast Missouri State, and SIUE. He comes from a very athletic family as his mother, Marla (Maupim) was a star for Illinois State in the 80s with 1,323 career points and later played professionally overseas. His father, Mark, played at Hanover College in Indiana. His sister, Grace, plays for Purdue volleyball where she has been named an All-American each of the past two years.

“It’s completely different in every aspect,” Cleveland said of the adjustment to college from high school. “The main two things is the competitiveness and the overall athletes here. In high school, you maybe have one or two guys like that on your team, but here every single guy is at that top level.”

There are still over four months until the 2022-23 men’s basketball season begins, but Coach McKay and the rest of his staff have gotten a good look at the makeup of their roster already. With returnees like McGhee, Rode, Shiloh Robinson, Blake Preston, and others, the team has several known quantities. With the addition of these three freshmen, the Flames hope they have what it takes to get back to the NCAA Tournament and win a fourth ASUN title in five years.

“We’re all here cause we can play,” Southerland said of his classmates. “We’re not going to shy away from any competition.”