Expectations are high around Liberty basketball, and that’s something that has become commonplace over the past several years under head coach Ritchie McKay. The Flames have once again been picked as the ASUN preseason favorite by both the coaches and the media entering the 2021-22 season.
Under McKay, Liberty has won 20 or more games for five straight years, advancing to the conference championship game the last four years, winning three straight regular season and tournament titles, while also winning the program’s first ever NCAA Tournament game during that time.
This year, Liberty will lean on three returning starters, led by returning ASUN Player of the Year Darius McGhee, who also has been unanimously voted as the ASUN Preseason Player of the Year. In addition to McGhee, Kyle Rode and Blake Preston return from last year’s squad that won 23 games and advanced to the NCAA Tournament as a 13-seed. In total, the Flames return eight of the top 10 players from last season’s team based on scoring and minutes played.
“I do think we have an exception leader in Kyle Rode,” McKay said of his team this upcoming season. “I think Keegan McDowell and what he’s been through, the character that he showed in coming back, the humility that he displayed. I think there’s a chance for such unbelievable player-led leadership and ownership in our deal that I feel like I got to let them do that. I feel like I can say less because they can say more, and we trust them with it.”
Even with all those returners, Liberty is still relatively young with eight of the 13 scholarship players in their first or second year in the program. Four talented true freshmen join the fold this season in Brody Peebles, Joseph Venzant, Bryson Spell, and DJ Moore. Peebles and Venzant have been around the program for a long time and don’t feel like the typical freshman. This talented pair committed to McKay and Liberty in Dec. 2019 during their junior year of high school.
“We had our work done early on Brody Peebles and Joseph Venzant, so this is just more relationship building,” McKay said of blending in the new freshmen. “Those guys committed and watched us play and came to campus, so they kind of had a feel for what our culture is like, what kind of words are present in our atmosphere. So their transition, I think, has been a little easier than DJ and Bryson, but I think if you’re a freshman in our program, you automatically get integrated because of the older guys, the more experienced guys and their humility. They embrace you without conditions, there’s no hazing and stuff like that. We are just really blessed to have a group of people that are really committed to being a part of something bigger than ourselves. I think that makes the freshmen transition easier off the floor. The on the floor is a different story. Look, they’re gonna have to get used to the pace of play, the physicality at this level, and how important and valuable each possession is. But, the only thing you could do with that is have skin in the game, mistakes that will happen on the floor. We won’t get that until the scrimmages and regular season.”
The freshmen had some help this summer in getting acclimated to the program as Liberty took a five-day tour to Puerto Rico in early August. There, the Flames got to play in three exhibition games, the first preseason trip since 2016 when Liberty made its way to Costa Rica.
“The freshmen come along really well,” Kyle Rode said of the newcomers. “That Puerto Rico trip really just gave you an extra boost in terms of who’s ready to go, who’s doing a really good job over the summer, now transitioning into the school year. It’s been great.”
In addition to the four freshmen, Liberty also has four second year players in the program that could see their roles increase this coming season. Drake Dobbs got the most playing time of that group a year ago, and he is expected to compete for the starting point guard spot in the place of Chris Parker. Micaiah Abii, Jonathan Jackson, and Isiah Warfield were all first year players last season that had a few limited opportunities to showcase their abilities.
“(Our inexperience) concerns me a little bit,” said McKay. “At the same time, we’ve been fortunate that guys that wait to play and when it was their turn they stepped up and they fulfilled a role that was necessary or valuable for us to have a chance to win. We’re going to keep trying to build into that daily. I like our group, I’ll tell you that.”