FLAMES HOPING TO SECURE A 4TH STRAIGHT ASUN TITLE
Liberty joined the ASUN ahead of the 2018-19 season, and the Flames have seen nothing but success since joining the conference. Under head coach Ritchie McKay, Liberty has won three consecutive regular season and tournament titles, the only team in the country to accomplish that feat. The Flames are also the only ASUN team to ever win three straight regular season and tournament titles while matching Belmont as the only ASUN team to ever claim three straight ASUN tournament titles.
Now, the Flames have their sights set on winning a fourth straight regular season and tournament title and hoping to become the first team since Gonzaga (2013-18) to do so. Liberty has begun conference play at 1-0, following their win at Stetson last Tuesday, and the Flames open league play at home Tuesday night against North Florida.
“It’s less pressure and more of just a desire to prove ourselves,” Liberty forward Blake Preston said of the desire to win a fourth straight title. “Every year there has been a challenge or an obstacle. Every year there has been a team that we’ve had to overcome. For us to be able to get better as a group, each and every day, in preparation for whatever comes our way is the biggest thing. At the end of the day, we know what our goal is, we want to be the best we can be.”
PRESTON SEES HIS MINUTES DECREASE
Blake Preston had to sit behind Scottie James and Myo Baxter-Bell during his first couple of years at Liberty before finally getting an opportunity to see increased playing time last season. And he performed very well. The 6’9″ forward started 21 of 29 games last season while averaging 18 minutes, 9 points, and 6.4 rebounds per game. He was on the cusp of becoming an all-conference performer.
This year, Preston has seen his minutes decrease as the Flames have increased depth and the role of other forwards, like Shiloh Robinson, has greatly increased. Preston is currently averaging 13.7 minutes per game while playing over last year’s average of 18 minutes per game just once all year. Despite that reduction in minutes, Coach McKay says he still has complete trust in Preston.
“I trust Blake Preston,” McKay said. “I am unafraid to play him 30 minutes in a given game. I’m just trying to put the guys on the floor that I think give us the best chance to win. To Blake’s credit, I don’t think many could have handled a decrease in minutes the way he has. Blake, he’s earned more minutes than he’s received.”
McKay also explained that many times his rotation and level of minutes guys receive is matchups based. There could be games later in the season where McKay turns to Preston who can match up with a post threat one on one better than others on the roster. The Flames also have a very versatile roster that can allow the team to go small or adjust its lineup based on needs in a give game against a given opponent.
“Not many could do what Blake has done and have the attitude, the commitment, the investment, that he’s had during a decrease like this,” McKay continued. “I want you to hear this, I fully trust Blake Preston. He’s a special young man.”
FLAMES HAVE SEEN IMPROVEMENT THROUGHOUT THE SEASON
Entering this season, Coach McKay warned about pre-season expectations early in the year due to the youth of his roster. The Flames did not bring in any veteran transfers prior to this season, and graduating seniors Elijah Cuffee and Chris Parker elected to move on despite having the option to come back for one more season due to the COVID year. Those decisions led to the Flames having 8 of 13 scholarship players on the team as either freshmen or sophomores.
Liberty felt some growing pains early in the season, losing three straight on a road trip in mid-November as the team opened the season 1-3. But the team learned through those losses and are entering conference play a much more experienced team than the one that took the court several weeks ago.
“I think the thing that I’m most excited about is our improvement,” McKay said. “Our guys ability to navigate some of the interference that comes with unmet expectations, whether those are internal or external. We’ve set a precedence here, it’s the unintended consequence of having some success. We’ve won a lot and because of that I think there’s an expectation to keep doing that.”
After that opening three-game losing streak, Liberty run off four straight wins and seven out of eight. The Flames would conclude non-conference play with a strong showing in the Diamond Head Classic with narrow losses to Stanford and BYU.
“What I’ve seen in our guys is a commitment to the growth process that has been more important to them than the outcome,” stated McKay. “Now, don’t get me wrong, we have competitive dudes. They want to win, but they’ve stayed the course even in six losses that I feel like we’re getting better.”
MCKAY DISCUSSES THE PROGRESS OF HIS COVID FRESHMEN
Coach McKay has frequently referred to his group of second year players as COVID freshmen as they didn’t get to experience a typical year last season. The group of Micaiah Abii, Isiah Warfield, Jonathan Jackson, and Drake Dobbs all saw some level of playing time this year, but, prior to Dobbs transferring, all were having different levels of involvement to the team this year.
Dobbs started the second game of the year at point guard at LSU, but he saw his minutes decrease throughout the non-conference portion of the season before electing to transfer to St. Thomas over Christmas break.
“We’re excited for Drake, appreciated what he’s done for us,” McKay said. “I think he picked a good place and hope his transition there is a smooth one.”
Abii and Warfield have seen increased roles this season, becoming part of the primary rotation. Abii has played in 13 games prior to missing the last couple due to entering COVID protocols. He was providing a valuable piece off the bench in a versatile big that can affect the game offensively. Warfield is one of the team’s better defenders and has made an impact with his effort each game.
“Micaiah Abii was playing really, really well before we had the COVID protocols,” McKay said. “I think he will have to have a little bit of a runway to get back into form. Isiah Warfield, he’s really playing a valuable role for us, really like what he’s doing.”
Jackson has had more difficulty becoming a mainstay of the rotation this season. He’s played in 13 games and is averaging 4.2 minutes per game. The three-point specialist didn’t hit his first triple until his seventh game played. Since then, he has made 6 of his 13 three-pointers.
“JJ is really putting in the work,” McKay said of Jackson. “He’s playing behind some guys that have more experience, but I think all three of those (COVID freshmen) have shown improvement.”