On Saturday, Liberty clinched its third consecutive regular season ASUN title. This is just the third season the Flames have been in the conference, and head coach Ritchie McKay has his team already flirting with being a dynasty and one of the best programs in the history of the conference.
Liberty has now won five regular season championships in its 41-year history as a men’s basketball program, with three of them coming under McKay over the past three seasons. It’s easy to scoff at that statistic, but what McKay has been able to build in such a short time in Lynchburg is truly unpredecented.
This is Liberty basketball we’re talking about. Since the turn of the century in 2000, Liberty has been much more likely to have a losing season than not. From 2000-2015, the Flames had 13 losing seasons. McKay took over, for a second tenure at Liberty, on April 1, 2015. The Flames suffered through a 13-19 season that following year, but have since won at least 20 games for a program record five consecutive seasons.
He was Liberty’s head coach for two seasons from 2007-2009 and brought in the most decorated freshman class in school history highlighted by Seth Curry and Jesse Sanders. After two seasons, McKay left to join one of his best friends, Tony Bennett, at Virginia.
McKay’s time in Charlottesville has been well documented. In helping Bennett turn the Cavaliers into one of the best programs in the ACC and all of college basketball, McKay got a first hand look at the Packline defense. He brought that knowledge back down 29 South to Liberty with hopes of creating something similar at a mid-major program.
“I’m honored to coach here,” McKay said on Saturday just minutes after his team knocked off Bellarmine, 94-78. “The success that we had at Virginia was special. It was really neat to be a part of. I learned a ton under one of the best coaches in the country, but I did want to be a head coach again because I felt like I had a grasp of the defensive system that I think can help you be competitive.”
“I thought that we could build something special here because I saw it in Charlottesville dug from the ground up,” McKay continued. “There’s been a great commitment from our University’s leadership to help us be in this position and to add value to what the mission is.”
McKay built the program at Liberty from the ground up, as well. He took fliers on high school prospects like Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz and Myo Baxter-Bell who had very few options, if any, at the Division I level. He got an assist from a Liberty professor whose son ended up being the greatest rebounder in the program’s DI history when Scottie James transferred. Add Caleb Homesley, who signed an NBA deal and was originally recruited by previous Liberty head coach Dale Layer, and McKay had the beginning of a top team at the mid-major level.
The Flames learned how to win, reaching the 20-win mark for the first time in eight seasons during that group’s freshman campaign. High major wins and championships followed, capped by 59 wins and two straight regular season and tournament championships to go along with the program’s first ever win in the NCAA Tournament. That group exhausted their eligibility and McKay and the Flames had to learn how to win without them.
“When you lose the likes of Caleb and Scottie and Georgie and Myo, you not only lose their numbers, you lose their person,” said McKay. “That’s a huge blow to absorb. You really got to give a lot of credit to Elijah Cuffee, Keegan McDowell, Kyle Rode, Blake Preston. Those guys that return, they felt like we were going to continue to earn and pursue being a part of something bigger than ourselves.”
Replacing four seniors with the resumes that group had, is a big enough obstacle to overcome by itself, but that was just one of many the 2020-21 Flames would have to overcome. The COVID pandemic has caused many challenges throughout this season, from games being canceled, rescheduled at the last minute, venues changed, weekly testing, and much more.
This group also had to battle through the deaths of two family members within the group. Elijah Cuffee‘s brother, Jason, died suddenly this past July. Associate head coach Brad Soucie’s wife, Kendra, lost a nearly two year battle with breast cancer in August. Those heartbreaks have helped this team’s bond grow stronger on the court but also off it.
“It’s been very taxing to have gone through all that we have with our different family members and the home-goings of some of their loved ones because we are a close group,” McKay stated. “With the pandemic and the social injustice stuff and even University-wide navigating some obstacles, it seems like it’s been a little bit more emotionally draining. Why I’m so inspired by our group, they come every day with a sense of gratitude and thankfulness that you can’t help but to be upbeat and excited about what’s happening.”
If you ask any of the coaches or players, they will tell you they are pleased with the 20 wins and regular season title so far this season, but they have bigger expectations. Those start this week as Liberty travels to Jacksonville, Florida for the 2021 ASUN Tournament where the Flames will look for a third straight tournament title and NCAA Tournament appearance.
“I do know there is a page-turning that you have to honor,” said McKay. “Although we were fortunate enough to win the regular season title, that’s not quite what this program aspires for. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really honored that we were able to accomplish it and it should be celebrated, but this is a group, that through the guys before them, wants to be a constant tournament participant. It’s going to be really hard to do.”
The road to achieving that goal takes its next step on Thursday afternoon as the 1-seed Flames take on 8-seed Kennesaw State at UNF Arena at 2 pm in a game that will be televised on ESPN+. If Liberty wins, the next step will be on Friday afternoon at 2 pm in the semifinals against the lowest-seeded team remaining and then the championship game is scheduled for Sunday at 2 pm on ESPN.
McKay has used Ephesians 3:20 as one of his founding principles for the program. That verse reads, “Now to him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think.” For Liberty fans who have been around for any extended period of time, the success McKay has brought to the Mountain in recent seasons were things the fan base only dreamed of prior to McKay, and now winning has become expected.
“It’s really hard,” McKay said of winning three straight regular season titles. “I hope Flames Nation doesn’t get spoiled by the success. It is really hard to do, but I’m really proud to be a part of it.”