FLAMES LEARNING TO LIVE WITH INCREASED EXPECTATIONS
After Liberty’s strong season last year that saw a program record 29 wins, the 4th ever trip to the NCAA Tournament, the first ever NCAA Tournament win, as well as both a regular season and postseason ASUN championship, the Flames are learning to live with increased expectations.
When the ASUN preseason poll is released later this week, it will not be a shock to anyone when Liberty is picked as the preseason favorite to repeat. The Flames have also found their name on preseason top 25 polls.
“I think all of our guys own our expectations,” Coach McKay said. “I know there are exterior expectations from the perimeter, but I think our group, internally, we built the habit of trying to pursue instead of perform.”
REDSHIRT-FRESHMEN HOPING TO MAKE IMPACT THIS SEASON
It wasn’t long ago that the Liberty men’s basketball team had just nine scholarship players, but since Ritchie McKay returned as head coach for the 2015-16 season, he has slowly built the team’s depth. It’s finally gotten to the point where talented incoming freshmen don’t have to be immediately inserted into the lineup. Instead, if McKay and staff sees fit, they can utilize the redshirt season to help with the adjustment from high school to Division I basketball.
Such was the case with Blake Preston and Josh Price who entered the season a year ago. Both could have been inserted into the lineup as reserves, but were instead red-shirted as they got to watch and learn behind veterans like Lovell Cabbil, Caleb Homesley, Scottie James, and Myo Baxter-Bell. Despite not seeing any time on the floor, both Preston and Price still practiced with the team all season. This year, they hope to make an impact in game action.
“He looks more sure of himself,” Baxter-Bell said of Preston. “Last year, he was like in and out. This year, he is more sure of himself. He knows what to expect.”
Preston is a 6’9″ post from Charlotte Christian School in Charlotte, North Carolina, the same school that produced former Flame and current NBA star Seth Curry. Preston was a two-year starter and captain in his final year of high school, as he averaged 13.8 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.5 blocks, and 1.4 assists his senior season.
Preston and Price actually played with each other their freshman season at Charlotte Christian before Price finished his high school career at Carmel Christian School. The 6’3″ guard is the son of former NBA player and former UNC Charlotte head coach Mark Price. He helped lead Carmel Christian to the 2018 NCISAA 2A State title.
“Josh has grown a ton,” Homesley said. “Before, he was a little afraid of contact. Now, he’s wanting the contact. I think that has a lot to do with Coach Hen (Barrera) and Coach Soucie.”
FLAMES HAVE INCREASED POST DEPTH
During McKay’s first stint as Liberty’s head coach, there were occasions he went with five guards. When he returned to Lynchburg, his career began with only one true post presence in Evan Maxwell. Even as recently as the 2017-18 campaign, he had to use the undersized 6’4″, 200-pound Ryan Kemrite at the power forward spot. That won’t be the case in 2019-20.
Returning first-team all-ASUN performer Scottie James is back to anchor the post. The 6’8″ redshirt-senior led the team last year in scoring (12.6) and rebounds (8.6). His primary backup last season aslo returns, as Myo Baxter-Bell provides a big boost off the bench. He averaged 5.1 points and 2.6 rebounds while averaging 15.3 minutes per game last season. The 6’5″, 255-pound forward is also very capable with the ball in his hands as the Flames frequently run the offense through him at the point when he’s in the game.
Those two won’t be alone. 7’2″ Brendan Newton is now in his third year in the program, and he showed well in his 22 game appearances a season ago. The aforementioned Blake Preston, Shiloh Robinson, and Kyle Rode also provide additional length in the paint if called upon.
“Blake is a big post presence for us right now,” Caleb Homesley said. “He’s getting deep seals. He’s making Scottie, Myo, myself, Shiloh, and Kyle a lot better.”
Robinson and Rode are both 6’7″ true freshmen. Robinson attended Kearney High School in Kearney, Nebraska where he was ranked as the #2 player in the state. Rode enters the program as the highest rated recruit in school history. The 2019 Kentucky Mr. Basketball nominee is expected to make an immediate impact. Rode is very flexible and could play most positions on the court. He will likely see most of his time at the 4.
“Blake is really strong,” Baxter-Bell stated. “Shiloh has really good footwork. He can finish with either hand. What I like about them, is they’re all learning, they’re not afraid to mess up.”
James welcomes the additional presence of the big bodies. “We’ve got a lot of good post players that are going to be really good in the coming years. It’s great for me because it gives me a little bit more competition in practice. More size, more strength, it’s fun. They’re pushing me everyday. Myo, Blake, Brendan, Shiloh, all those guys, working really hard and getting better every day.”
Liberty is currently scheduled to play in two preseason “secret” scrimmages, according to Jeff Goodman. The Flames will play at UNC Greensboro on October 19th and at home against Queens University on November 2nd. These scrimmages are closed to the media and general public.