Week two of Liberty men’s basketball is complete, and the mixed emotions for many fans linger. Last week, Liberty beat North Carolina Central 79-63 and lost to Southern Mississippi by four, 72-76. The non-conference schedule continues to be the exploratory stage for this Liberty team, as an at-large-bid was and is an unlikely consideration for the team.
While this past week might startle some, this time of the season continues to have a silver lining. Everyone in the program is still observing and learning what is best for the team and organizing the proper approach to the season. The team will get their legs and will hopefully be ready to hit their stride come conference play. The Flames face an undefeated Northwestern team (4-0) on Tuesday and will need to bring their chemistry and preparedness.
I had the pleasure of making the trip to Liberty Arena this past Friday with my wife and got to observe the game against Southern Mississippi up close. I’ve combined some analysis from that game and Monday’s NC Central contest to share three takeaways below from week two:
- Darius and the Flames benefits from a higher usage rate. Are you familiar with Russell Westbrook? Pretty much every basketball fan is, for all the wrong reasons. In the past, he often played a frustratingly inefficient style of volume shooting and high usage that drove fans of the game absurd. There is merit to the sentiment. Basketball players know when a team is playing one on five it is frustrating for literally everyone else but the other team. This criticism is often what is thrown Liberty’s way when Darius has a high usage night (um, all of last season), but Darius is not Russell. Darius McGhee is incredibly efficient for his output, and is a rare talent. He is a norm-breaker, a player that has a justified reason to break the unwritten rules of basketball. Ryan Kemrite has pointed out to me (and he is right) that Darius and the Flames excel when he is the most offensively aggressive, highest usage rate player on the floor (if even just for shorter stints than last year). McGhee became increasingly aggressive against Southern Miss in the second half, and the team and Arena came to life. If the Flames want to find some life this season offensively, Darius will need to return to some of his old primary ball-handling, slashing, scoring, volume-shooting, oh-my-goodness-he-just-made-that kind of nights.
- The front court will “find it.” Kyle Rode, Shiloh Robinson, Zach Cleveland, and Blake Preston were able to score some this week and make their presence known, but the size and presence of the Southern Miss front court was definitely noted. None of the Flames’ bigs hit double-digit scoring this week, but made their imprint primarily on defense and the glass. Zach Cleveland has shown exciting potential and energy, as well as an aggression Liberty needs in the paint. The front court is continuing to define roles, find their offensive play style and connect with the guards in a way that balances the offensive attack. Robinson and Rode both had breakout performances last season that shaped the trajectory of their success, so look for both to have considerable performances at some point in the next two months. Also, an honorable mention is in order for Shiloh. He made a clutch three against Southern Miss that kept the Flames alive. The front court will come alive offensively in due time.
- The Flames will have to bring their best competition against all mid-majors. The ASUN has done very well in non-conference play this season. Queens, North Alabama, Stetson, Kennesaw State, and Lipscomb are just some of the notable mentions from the non-conference fun that have been playing teams with great competition. KSU lost to a solid Florida team by 10 and Lipscomb lost to Notre Dame by one point. Also, Queens upset Marshall with a tight one-point victory. Like I mentioned earlier, Northwestern is undefeated. Liberty is learning to play in a mid-major world where transfers are raising the level of competition for high-majors and mid-majors, alike. The Flames are having to hone that competitive edge and expectation that every night requires them to bring the “dog” in them and to go out and earn wins. As Coach McKay constantly reminds fans, “winning is hard” and the Flames are not guaranteed a positive outcome. That is the new reality for mid-major basketball, and to be honest, it’s exhilarating as a basketball fan. But, as a Flames’ fan, it just means we have to support our guys all the more no matter what the line is on the game.
I’m looking forward to seeing the Flames compete in Cancun. I think they are going to be sharp and ready to fight on Tuesday. They continue to settle in and find big games from the guys when they need them most. Be sure to tune in Tuesday night on CBSSN at 8:30p as the Flames take on the Wildcats.