As Ritchie McKay enters his 10th straight season guiding the Flames, Liberty will have a new look roster in 2024-25. Seven new players will join the team, and, with the addition of two redshirt players from this past season, it will be the biggest roster overhaul the program has seen in quite some time.

This comes on the heels of Liberty’s first season in Conference USA where the team finished 18-14 on the season. More notably, the Flames were just 7-9 conference play and were defeated in the CUSA Tournament Quarterfinals. Liberty has not had a losing record in conference in 12 seasons under McKay and not since the 2014-15 campaign when Dale Layer was the head coach.

Coach McKay and his staff knew they needed to make an upgrade in a couple areas of the team’s roster to compete for a conference championship in CUSA. Most notably, the Flames wanted to get longer and more athletic throughout it’s roster.

“Having been in the ASUN the five previous seasons, we had a familiarity with competing for a championship in each of those seasons,” McKay said in a Tuesday morning press conference as he addressed his new look roster and transfer portal haul. “That didn’t happen in our first year in Conference USA. I think we learned some of the length, size, and athleticism that we will have to compete against.”

Kyle Rode and Shiloh Robinson, the two post players that were significant members of the team over the past five years, have graduated and are moving on. The Flames also lost rotational players Joseph Venzant and Brody Peebles off last season’s roster. That’s two 6’3″ and two 6’7″ players that have left the team that were part of the rotation from last year’s team.

The newcomers include 6’4″ Taelon Peter, 6’6″ Jayvon Maughmer, 6’8″ Owen Aquino, 6’9″Isaiah Ihnen, and 6’9″ Josh Smith. Liberty’s team will certainly have a new look in 2024-25, a look that includes much more size throughout the roster, not just in the frontcourt but also backcourt. This group will join with three returning starters from last year’s team in Colin Porter, Kaden Metheny, and Zach Cleveland.

“We know better what we needed and we addressed that,” McKay said. “I think it is incumbent upon us to make sure we filled a roster that can be competitive but also be the right representatives of our university. We mixed and matched, if you will. We have a Junior College All-American, a couple of transfers from Division I, a couple of transfers from Division II. I think we found the right people and filled some needs that I think we had to address losing what we did.”

Aquino, a forward from Eastern Florida State College, has two seasons of eligibility remaining. He was named the FCSAA Player of the Year after averaging 15 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 4.1 assists this past season, helping his team to a 26-4 record and conference championship. The 6’8″, 210 pound forward started all 31 games he played in while shooting 60.7% from the field. He also shot 30.6% from three while making 15 of 49 triples and shot 61.4% from the charity stripe. Aquino had 15 points or more in 16 games this season and scored over 20 five times while topping out at 29 twice. He had one triple double and nine double-doubles on the year.

Ranked as a top 50 national JUCO prospect, Aquino is originally from Madrid, Spain where he was invited to play with the Spain Under 20 national team at the European Championship in Greece. He averaged 4.7 points and 3.4 rebounds in the seven games for Spain. He previously played for the Spain Under 16 national team in the European Championships in 2019. Aquino is the first junior college prospect McKay has signed in his 12 seasons at Liberty.

“Owen has just got this ability to create for himself and others on the offensive end,” McKay said. “He’s got a really high basketball IQ. Having had the international experience that he’s accrued with the Spain U20, I think it has accelerated his confidence. I think he is only scratching the surface. I think he’s got a lot of physical attributes that we welcome and we need, but I also think he’s got some physical strength, explosion, and some skill stuff that I think we can help him with that could translate into him being an unbelievably impactful player for us.”

Peter, a Division II Arkansas Tech transfer guard, has one season of eligibility remaining. This past season, he was named GAC Player of the Year and a unanimous First-Team All-GAC selection. The 6’4″, 185 pound guard started all 32 games he played in while averaging 18.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game. He shot 49.9% from the field and connected on 81 of 198 three-pointers (40.1%) and shot 86.8% from the free throw line.

He played three seasons at Arkansas Tech, seeing his production increase each season. He averaged 10.0 points per game in 2021-22, seeing that increase to 15.5 points per game in 2022-23. He began his collegiate career at Tennessee Tech where he played in six games and scored 10 points during the 2020-21 season.

Playing for the Cedarville Yellow Jackets in Division II over the past four years, the 6’6″, 210 pound Maughmer has established himself as one of the top players in the country at that level. This past year, he started all 35 games he played in while averaging 33.1 minutes, 20.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game. He shot 51.9% from the field, 40.8% from three as he made 78 of 191 shots behind the arc, and also shot 81.0% from the free throw line.

Maughmer was named his conference’s player of the year and was named first-team NCCAA All-American, just one year after being a third team choice. He was also named the NCCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player after leading Cedarville to the national title. He was the first Cedarville player to appear on the first team NCCAA All-American list since his older brother, Branden, did so a few years ago. Like Jayvon, his brother Branden played four years at Cedarville before transferring to Division I Morehead State for his final season.

“With both Jayvon and Taelon, I saw two individuals that wanted to win the game more than they wanted to score their points or get their own,” said McKay of his Division II transfer additions. “(They both have) a unique ability in their skill-set. Whether it was their ability to take it to the rim and finish – Taelon is a terrific finisher, so is Jayvon – and they can stretch it from behind the arc, you know how much we like to really create spacing in our offense. I felt like they were both really good fits for our system and the way we play, and also for the culture that presently exists. I think they add a ton of value to that. I have a feeling those two will be very significant contributors.”

Ihnen was originally recruited by Richard Pitino at Minnesota entered the portal after being with the Gophers since the 2019-20 season. He started his career as a rotation player, appearing in 21 games his freshman season and 29 games his sophomore season, playing 11.4 and 14.3 minutes per game in those years, respectively. But that was before back to back ACL injuries sidelined him for the entirety of the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons.

Ihnen returned to action this season for the Gophers, playing 11.4 minutes per game in 28 but saw a diminished role towards the end of the season. He averaged 3.4 points and 1.9 rebounds per game while shooting 44% from the field and 35.8% from three.

He is originally from Germany where he played for the International Basketball Academy Munich (IBAM) team, averaging 13.6 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.0 blocks per game while shooting 54.3 percent from the field and 35.2 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. He was the team’s top rebounder, second-leading shot blocker and third-leading scorer. Ihnen was rated the No. 89-ranked prospect in the class of 2019 according to 247Sports, who also listed  him as a four-star recruit.

“He’s played against really good competition for a while now,” said McKay of Ihnen. “He played in Germany. I do love his length. He can really stretch you. He’s got a finishing ability around the basket that is influential.”

Smith, who McKay was unable to address publicly as his paperwork has not been finalized but remains committed to Liberty, started 11 of 14 games he played in this past season at Stetson, averaging 22.6 minutes per game. He also averaged 8.4 points and 5.7 rebounds per contest while shooting 55.7% from the field and making 4 of 12 three-pointers while also shooting 64.1% from three free throw line.

Smith was hampered by injuries throughout the year, missing the non-conference portion of the schedule before returning to the lineup and suffering an injury that ended his season late in the year. In his last two contests of the season before suffering the season ending injury, Smith averaged 21.5 points and 11 rebounds, notching his second and third double doubles of the season. He scored 19 while adding 11 rebounds against Bellarmine, following that up with 24 points and 11 boards against Eastern Kentucky.

For his career at Stetson, Smith played in 94 games while making 60 starts. He averaged 20.3 minutes, 7.8 points, and 5.5 rebounds per game while shooting 51.8% from the field, 31.5% from three (47 of 149) and 69.4% from the free throw line.

“I do feel like we have increased our depth,” said McKay. “There are some really good players that have some experience, that have played in tournament games or played at a high enough level where the games are significant. That’s what we want to return to. We’ve been a candidate for the NCAA Tournament or NIT in six consecutive seasons. Last year, bowing out early and not having a conference record that would warrant an opportunity for either NIT or NCAA Tournament. We aspire to get back into that equation. I think we have the talent to do it, just hope we can mesh quickly enough to make sure we maximize it.”

It has been a busy several weeks for McKay and his staff since the team lost to UTEP on March 14 in Huntsville, Alabama in the CUSA Quarterfinals. The Flames got bigger, longer, and more athletic, and McKay hopes these additions will help the Flames return to competing for conference championships.

“In year two, I feel confident in our group,” stated McKay as he prepares to guide his team into its second season in CUSA. “I look forward to the prospects of being able to compete a little bit better in our league. I believe in our guys that are returning, that chose to stay, and want to be at Liberty. I don’t think we are too far away from competing for a championship again.”