The Liberty Flames men’s basketball season is just less than one month away. Due to the ongoing pandemic, the college basketball season will tip-off later than usual, currently scheduled for the season to begin on Nov. 25. Liberty has yet to release a completed schedule, but due to the shortened season, the non-conference schedule will be condensed.
Ritchie McKay enters his 6th straight season and 8th overall as head coach of the Liberty men’s basketball program. His Flames are looking to make it three straight ASUN Championships, but will have to do so with a new look roster. Let’s hop right into the season preview.
RETURNERS: Elijah Cuffee, Darius McGhee, Kyle Rode, Shiloh Robinson, Blake Preston, Josh Price, Keegan McDowell, Tytist Dean, Marten Maide, Colton Reed, Luke McKay
Liberty returns two starters from last season in Elijah Cuffee and Darius McGhee. McGhee led the Flames in minutes played a season ago, while Cuffee was third on the team in minutes.
McGhee will look to build upon his 9.5 points per game from last season, which finished 4th on the team. He is the team’s leading returning scorer after he shot 38.6% from three point range. He’s an All-ASUN First Team candidate. Cuffee returns from his first season playing as Liberty’s defensive stopper on the perimeter, but with the key losses the Flames have suffered, Cuffee will be counted on for increased leadership and offensive production this season.
Sophomores Kyle Rode and Shiloh Robinson return and will be expected to enter the starting lineup. Rode started 5 games last season while Caleb Homesley dealt with an injury. He finished the season averaging 4.2 points and 2.3 rebounds per game while shooting 36.5% from three in 18.5 minutes per game. Robinson was somewhat of a surprise last year, as many expected him to redshirt entering the season, but he proved he was too talented to sit on the bench. The 6’7″ forward ended up playing 11 minutes per game.
Blake Preston is the only true post man on the roster. He’s played in the shadow of Scottie James and Myo Baxter-Bell throughout his career, but he will have the opportunity this year to stake a claim to a starter’s role. Josh Price will also fight for an increased role in the backcourt.
After announcing his intentions to transfer just prior to the start of last season, Keegan McDowell had a change of heart and has returned to the program. He has played in 68 games and has made 37.1% of his three point attempts during his first two years in the program.
LOSSES: Caleb Homesley, Scottie James, Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz, Myo Baxter-Bell, Brendan Newton
Coach McKay and the Flames will have to move forward without the services of the most successful senior class in school history. The group of Homesley, James, Pacheco-Ortiz, and Baxter-Bell led the program to over 100 wins and two ASUN Championships during their career. All four are likely to end up playing professional basketball, and Homesley could end up in the NBA after averaging 15.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game during his senior season that led to him being named the ASUN Player of the Year.
The Flames frontcourt takes a huge hit with the losses of James and Baxter-Bell who were arguably the greatest tandem of big men at the mid-major level the past couple of seasons.
NEWCOMERS: Chris Parker, Micaiah Abii, Drake Dobbs, Jonathan Jackson, Isiah Warfield
Parker is a grad transfer from Henderson State who joins the Flames and could be expected to slide into the starting lineup for opening night. His play-making ability and experience will be valuable to this year’s team. He’ll look to fill some of the void left by Pacheco-Ortiz.
Liberty also adds four freshmen to this year’s team. Warfield, a 6-foot-5 guard, is Liberty’s highest rated recruit in school history. The 6-foot-3 Dobbs may be the most ready of the group, and he may be the only true point guard on this year’s roster. Jackson, the younger brother of NBA star Justin Jackson, is expected to contribute immediately, as well. 6-foot-7 Abii has the potential to be a fan favorite with his length and versatility.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: Parker, McGhee, Cuffee, Rode, Robinson
McGhee and Cuffee are a given. Sophomores Rode and Robinson are as close to a shoo-in as can be. There’s a case to be made for Dobbs to start, but Parker gives Liberty added experience to begin the season. Look for Dobbs to break into the starting rotation as the season wears on.
Liberty is coming off a 30-4 (13-3) campaign which was shortened due to coronavirus concerns. The Flames began the season 14-0 before dropping their first game at LSU on Dec. 29. Liberty returned to its winning ways by sprinting out to five wins to begin ASUN play and starting the year 19-1.
A trip to northern Florida in late January was disappointing, as the Flames lost consecutive games to North Florida and Stetson within 48 hours.
The Flames rebounded to win eight straight and 11 out of 12 to claim a second straight ASUN regular season and tournament championship. The season culminated in a 73-57 win over Lipscomb in the ASUN Tournament Championship game on March 8 in the final men’s basketball game to be played in the Vines Center. With the win, Liberty secured its second straight NCAA Tournament appearance, but the Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus.
Liberty will look to replace its talented senior class who led the program to a school record 29 wins during their junior campaign and set another school record last season with 30 wins.
Despite the key losses, the Flames are still projected by many to compete in the upper half of the ASUN this year. Cuffee and McGhee provide experience and plenty of championship minutes. If the newcomers are able to adjust to the packline defense and rigors of Division I basketball by conference play, the Flames could put themselves in position for an unprecedented three-peat.
Two questions for this year’s team are:
1) How quickly will the newcomers adjust?
The entire group of newcomers have talent, the question surrounds how quickly they can adjust to the Division I game, especially in learning the packline. With so many losses, McKay will have to turn to some of the newcomers to fill in some vital roles and provide much needed depth.
2) Who fills in in the post?
Scottie James and Myo Baxter-Bell provided the Flames with an added dimension that very few teams, particularly at the mid-major level, had. McKay was able to lean on them for 40 minutes in the post, with neither being expected to play more than 20 points, individually. Now, the Flames move forward in life after this combo. Shiloh Robinson is most likely to get the start at the 5, but he isn’t a true post. Blake Preston has the potential to provide the team with some valuable minutes in the post, but he is ultimately unproven.
Bottom line: A core of Cuffee, McGhee, Rode, and Robinson are good enough to compete for an ASUN championship. If McKay can gel this team with the newcomers and they are able to pick up the packline quickly, the Flames can’t be counted out in the ASUN race. While this team might not have the experience and firepower to compete on a national level to begin the season, Liberty is talented enough to win another ASUN Championship.
The ASUN has revised the revised men’s basketball schedule for this year. Every team will play 16 games, but there will not be the typical home and home series. Instead, there will be two game series played on Thursday-Saturday at one location.
ASUN Home: FGCU, Kennesaw State, North Florida, Bellarmine
The Flames will open the home portion of their ASUN slate on Jan. 7 against FGCU. Liberty also gets traditionally strong North Florida at home this season. Kennesaw State is expected to be improved behind a talented group of freshmen. Bellarmine will be in their first season transitioning from Division II.
ASUN Away: Lipscomb, Stetson, Jacksonville, North Alabama
Liberty definitely drew the short end of the stick with its away schedule, having to open league play in Nashville against expected preseason favorite Lipscomb. Stetson is also expected to compete for a league championship as the Flames will play 4 of their first 6 league games on the road against Lipscomb and Stetson.
Areas of Interest:
- All players on this year’s roster will be given an additional year of eligibility irrespective of how many games he plays in
- All ASUN teams will play a two game weekend series at one location as opposed to the typical home and home schedules due to the coronavirus
- At the time of this writing, it is still unknown how many fans will be allowed into Liberty Arena for games this season but it is expected to be limited