Roster turnover

Every offseason brings a wave of uncertainty as transfers have become the norm in college basketball. There have already been over 500 announced transfers from Division I programs and Liberty is no different. Ezra Talbert, Isaiah Williams, Ryan Hiepler, and Brody Hicks will all be playing elsewhere in 2018-19. That quartet combined to score 6.6 points per game this past season, albeit with Hiepler redshirting.

“(I’m) excited for Ez, Isaiah, Brody, and Ryan,” McKay said. “They’re all looking for opportunities to expand their playing experience, and I’m an advocate for that. They served well in their time here. We had a contingency plan just in case, which we will do every year. We hope our guys and their student-athlete experience and whole person development promotes retention, but I can’t do anything about playing time relative to those guys earning it in practice, being productive in the games. When it comes to wanting to win, no one is more invested (than me), and if you help us win, you’re going to help us and get an opportunity if you’re representing right.”

Part of that contingency plan included graduate transfer Keenan Gumbs who committed to Liberty last week. He joins a signing class that includes point guard Josh Price, combo guard Darius McGhee, and forward Blake Preston.

“He’s got all the things that we’re looking for,” McKay said of his newest addition in Gumbs. “Grad transfers on the whole are a little bit of a risk especially if you have a healthy culture, which I think we do. If I’m looking up what we need – athleticism, toughness, passion, humility, scoring ability, and a defensive ability – he checks all the boxes. I’m elated that we were able to attract him to our family.”

The Flames still have one scholarship available if they choose to use it. “With the group we have, we can go with any of the perimeters – point, combo, true wing (to fill that last spot). We’re going to look for the best fit. If we don’t find it, we’ll carry that scholarship. If there’s another grad transfer that fits and has the DNA that we think is necessary for our family, then you could see that happen, but we’re in a pretty good spot.”

Coaching staff changes

As we have reported previously, assistant coach Vic Sfera and director of player development Marcus Conrad will be joining new UNC Charlotte head coach Ron Sanchez on his staff in similar roles.

“We lost two really valuable staffers,” McKay said of Sfera’s and Conrad’s departures. “The interest in filling those spots has been humbling and expansive, there are some phenomenal candidates out there.”

Replacing Conrad will be Joe Pierre III. Pierre has spent the past two seasons as a graduate assistant at Middle Tennessee State under head coach Kermit Davis. Davis was named head coach at Ole Miss last month. Pierre has also spent time as a student manager at Oklahoma State. He’s the son of Butch Pierre, a long time assistant coach with stints at Mississippi State, Charlotte, LSU, Oklahoma State, NC State, and Memphis. His brother, Josh, is currently the director of operations for Arkansas State.

“Joe has been interested in being a part of Liberty for at least 2 years,” said McKay. “His dad reached out to me, he reached out to me, and we struck up a friendship. Great, great young coach. He’s going to do a great job for us. I think he will add a ton of value. He’s really sharp. He’s a young up and comer.”

Pierre could assist on the road recruiting until McKay is able to fill the third assistant spot left vacated by Sfera. “I love Vic and what he did for us. We’ve known each other for years. I’m really excited for him to be able to serve so well at our place and then get an opportunity that betters their personal situation.”

While Sfera came to Liberty from Virginia and also had extensive knowledge of the Pack-line, McKay says that’s not necessarily a requirement for his replacement. “We’re at a place in our program like we were at UVA after our 3rd year. Our guys know what to expect in the defensive system. Brad Soucie, who coordinates the defense for us, is on top of that. Liberty attracts really, really quality people that are skilled in their trade. The pool of candidates for the assistant spot have been great.”

Looking to next year

“For the first time in my tenure here, we have a chance to be old,” McKay said as he looked ahead to the 2018-19 season. “We had one senior and one junior that played this year, and next year that changes and, all of a sudden, you’ve got a couple of guys who have been in the program a couple-3 years. I think that experience alone should promote a better voice for a player-led program instead of coach-led. Anytime you’re touching that, you have a chance to build something special.”

The Flames will have two seniors on the roster in Lovell Cabbil and Gumbs and a junior class featuring Caleb Homesley, Scottie James, Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz, and Myo Baxter-Bell. Cabbil and Homesley will be in their 4th year with the program, while Scottie, Georgie, and Myo will all be entering their 3rd season.

“Etched in my memory is the 5 game losing streak, the Carlik Jones shot, the unraveling against UIC,” McKay said. “Those are things I want to see if we can’t find a way to avert. There were a ton of positives – Scottie James’ play, the run we had at the end, our guys were confident after that 5 game (losing) streak. We started 9-4, (had that) bad patch, then finished 10-4. Our guys bookend-ed a really poor patch in the middle that if we would have went 2-3 or even 3-2, it would have been the best Liberty season ever. It just shows how fragile a season can be and how small the margin for error is. Because our aspirations are to contend for a conference championship every year, let’s see what we can learn from in order to try to position ourselves to have that same opportunity next year.”