The Liberty men’s basketball team will open the 2019-20 season this Friday night in the Vines Center when the Flames host the Radford Highlanders. It will mark the commencement of the 30th season inside the Vines Center. It will also be the last season played in the Vines as Liberty is scheduled to move next door to the Liberty Arena next season.
There have been many memories made inside the Vines Center that has been home to four men’s basketball conference tournament champions and NCAA Tournament appearances. Liberty won the 2004 Big South Championship in Vines, trouncing High Point, 89-44. This year’s team hopes to make many more memories for the final ride.
“I hope we get the Vines packed out this year,” senior forward Myo Baxter-Bell said. “It would be a great way to go out and be the last time to play here. I think when we come back in later years, it will be special for all of us to remember as being the last team to play on that court.”
This year’s team has the potential to be the best to ever play at the Vines, a fitting way to close out the venue which will remain open for Liberty Convocations and special events. The Flames return four starters from a team that set program marks with 29 wins and an NCAA Tournament win. Additionally, three redshirt-seniors provide McKay’s squad with more leadership than he has had in his time as Liberty’s head coach.
“Because we have so much returning and all the preseason stuff has us either at the top or whatever,” McKay explained, “I think it’s human nature to look at that stuff, but that doesn’t mean anything. You don’t win any awards in the preseason. There’s no honors that you can take home with you. It’s just the preseason.”
The Flames have garnered plenty of preseason love, being picked by Lindy’s as a preseason top 25 team, voted as the ASUN preseason favorite, and Caleb Homesley being named preseason ASUN Player of the Year. None of that matters though as it’s a new year.
“I’m honestly tired of hearing about last year,” said Baxter-Bell. “We’ve got so many different challenges this year. We’re going against different teams in the ASUN – people transferring in, people coming out. We have a whole different team. We don’t have all the players we did. We don’t have Keenan Gumbs, Zach (Farquhar), Lovell (Cabill). In my head, it’s start over from scratch. It’s a whole different year. We’re not going to tip the ball up and start with a 20 point lead because we won. It has nothing to do with what we did last year. I want to experience what I experienced last year, but I know that it comes with sacrifice.”
McKay doesn’t have to look far for motivation to not come into the season complacent. Just one year ago, Lipscomb was the reigning ASUN champs and were getting all the love from the media in the preseason. The Bisons had a very successful season, but they lost on their home court in the ASUN Championship game.
“If we want to go back to the tournament, we’ve got to do what we did last year – take it one day at a time,” senior point guard Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz stated. “It’s a long season, anything can happen. Last year was fun, but it’s a new year. We know what it takes to be a great team this year. We need to make sure we’re competing and getting better every day.”
Several newcomers will look to provide some energy and fresh blood to fight against complacency. True freshmen Kyle Rode and Shiloh Robinson have provide an immediate impact on the court during practice for the Flames. Both 6’7″ forwards provide length and versatility for McKay and added depth to an already loaded roster. Rode comes into the program as its highest rated recruit ever and Robinson was the number two ranked player to come out of the state of Nebraska.
“We have a deeper group so the competitive level is high,” McKay said of preseason practice. “Whenever that happens, I think typically, you quickly grow tired of playing against one another. It also warrants a really high level of play. There’s been snapshots of us being the kind of team that could compete for a championship. I’m pleased, but I still think we have a ways to go to kind of recreate chemistry.”
That deeper group will get tested by a challenging non-conference slate that includes games at LSU and Vanderbilt, but ultimately the challenge of the ASUN awaits. This year, for the first time in a long time, the Vines Center will be home to a team that is the hunted instead of the hunter.
“I think we’ve got to continue to focus on what our dreams and goals are,” said McKay. “There’s a route to get there, and there’s going to be obstacles on that route. How we scale the obstacle is really going to determine our ability to grow in our maturity and handle expectations and adversity, but try to continue to move our program forward.”