The Liberty Flames open the 2021-22 men’s basketball season on Thursday evening against Regent University, a member of the NCCAA. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. from Liberty Arena and will be streamed live on ESPN+.
The Flames opened the brand new Liberty Arena last season, winning all 13 games inside the shiny new facility. Liberty has won 36 straight games at home dating back to its time in the Vines Center. It is currently the 2nd longest home win streak in the country, trailing only Gonzaga. Thursday’s game will be the first with full capacity allowed inside the new arena.
“The last time we had an opportunity to make a difference, Flames Nation turned out in full force when we played Lipscomb for the ASUN Championship,” Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay said of the crowd. “I’ve been in Cameron Indoor, in the Yum Center, in the Dean Dome, at JPJ, that atmosphere was as good as any. If we can get 4,000 in Liberty Arena with that kind of support, it will be worth a few points.”
Ritchie McKay’s Flames are coming off a 23-6 season and 11-2 mark in ASUN play that saw Liberty earn a 13-seed in the NCAA Tournament before losing to No. 4 seed Oklahoma State in the first round. The Flames won the ASUN regular season title and the ASUN Tournament title for a third consecutive season.
The Flames will be the heavy favorite to repeat for what would be an ASUN record fourth straight time in a new look conference which will feature the additions of three teams in Eastern Kentucky, Jacksonville State, and Central Arkansas. Liberty returns three starters including ASUN Player of the Year and Tournament MVP Darius McGhee. The Flames will welcome four freshmen in DJ Moore, Brody Peebles, Bryson Spell, and Joseph Venzant.
“It’s really important that we set our own expectations in house and make sure we worry about honoring those,” McKay said of his team’s expectations this season. “I would much rather have it the way it is for us to be expected to do this or that, than I would be to have a level of complacency or callousness to our program. Thankful that people do have a strong expectation of us, but at the same time, I want us to be pursuant of our standards of what we deem as successful. Fortunately, we have a group that is really committed to that.”
The reigning ASUN Player of the Year, McGhee will be looking to become the first ever two-time conference player of the year performer in school history. Last season, he led the Flames in scoring at 15.5 points per game while shooting 45.2% from the field and 40.8% from three. McGhee made 95 three pointers during the season, the fourth most for made three-pointers in a single season. He has made 224 three-pointers during his career, as he is tied for 3rd most in school history with Larry Jackson for career three-pointers made, trailing only Larry Blair and Ryan Kemrite. Kemrite’s career record of 258 made three-pointers will likely be broken by McGhee before Christmas this season.
“He’s a unique player,” said McKay of McGhee. “Not many people can impact the game like he can with his quickness, his ability to create for his teammate or himself, how much of an impact he makes on the defensive end, the way he rebounds.”
“The way Malik Willis processes his stardom or acclaim, I think Darius is on par with that,” McKay continued on his star guard. “They are such great representatives of our University. For us as coaches, it’s such a blessing to have young men that really care about something bigger than themselves. There’s going to be nights when he doesn’t score however many points or turns it over a few times, but I like our chances with Darius McGhee on the court.”
McKay and the Flames return five veterans who have played key roles on the recent championship teams. In addition to McGhee, Liberty also welcomes back Kyle Rode, Blake Preston, Keegan McDowell, and Shiloh Robinson. Rode started all 29 games a season ago while McDowell has been around the program longer than any other player on the roster. Both Preston and Robinson provide experience in the paint and have all-conference potential.
Outside of those, eight of Liberty’s 13 scholarship players are freshmen or sophomores. The only one out of that group that has played any significant amount of minutes for the Flames is point guard Drake Dobbs who averaged 12.9 minutes per game in the 29 contests a season a go as a true freshman. McKay will have to find replacements for the program’s all-time leader in wins and last year’s ASUN Defensive Player of the Year Elijah Cuffee and Chris Parker who started 28 games last year and was second on the team in scoring as he averaged 10.3 points per game.
“We don’t talk about replacing guys,” said McKay. “We try and have a commitment to being a developmental program. I have seen growth in the five aforementioned returners as well as that sophomore class. I think it will pay dividends when you watch us play, but we are always going to be a work in progress. But, I like our team and I like their commitment to getting better and playing as a unit.”
Following Thursday’s opener against Regent, Liberty will play away from home for the next four games beginning Monday night at LSU. Next Friday and Saturday, the Flames are in Orlando for two neutral site games against Iona and Manhattan as part of the MAAC/ASUN Challenge. Before returning home, Liberty closes out the trip by facing Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Florida on Tuesday, Nov. 23.
The non-conference home schedule is highlighted by a trip from SEC member Missouri on Dec. 2. The Flames also have neutral site contests against Stephen F. Austin, East Carolina, and a three-game tournament in Honolulu, Hawaii as part of the Diamond Head Classic where Liberty opens against Northern Iowa.
“The schedule that you see is what we could get,” McKay explained. “When I first got here, we had a lot easier time scheduling. Now, I don’t want to say it’s nightmarish, but it is really difficult. We took any neutral game that we could get. Fortunately, we have experienced a little bit of success and got invited to some tournaments or some double and triple-headers that I think is really good for us because neutral games is what you do in the postseason. The rest of the schedule, we just took what we could get. My hope is to continue to get better, play as tough a schedule as we can so that when we get to conference play we’re prepared.”