by Kyle Koso
While the number of teams that felt acute disappointment at the sudden ending of the 2019-20 college basketball season is enormous, you can’t accurately gauge the depth of the hurt when it comes to the Liberty men’s program.
The Flames (who tip off this season against Purdue on Wednesday at the Space Coast Challenge) had a 30-4 record when the curtain dropped, having earned a second straight berth in the NCAA Tournament after winning the Atlantic Sun tourney on March 8. Fueled by a core of seasoned, passionate and confident seniors, Liberty set a school record for wins and had every reason to think it had a special capacity to do well on the biggest stage.
All these months later, head coach Ritchie McKay will have to lean on a much less experienced group, hoping to breed in their minds that amazing and memorable basketball games can be their legacy, as well.
“There’s no substitute for being old in college basketball. We want to get old and stay old. We weren’t afforded that luxury — we anticipate guys evolving into their roles and how they can best impact winning in our family setting,” said McKay, who has four straight 20-win seasons at Liberty and guided his team over Mississippi State in 2019 for the program’s first NCAA tournament win. “Because we’ve been able to attract a high-character individual, I believe it’ll work itself out at some point."
“We’re not alone in this obstacle … we didn’t get any scrimmages or exhibitions, so it’s an arduous task to have your first game against an incredibly well-coached Purdue team that has four and five--star recruits all around their roster. There’s some angst about being exposed, but that’s why we play. We want to prepare ourselves for a very competitive conference, and there’s no better way than this privilege to play in the Space Coast Challenge.”
There are some early sources of comfort, with three-year starter Elijah Cuffee and junior Darius McGhee back in the loop. Cuffee is a lockdown perimeter defender (he’s the ASUN preseason defensive player of the year) who also led the team in assists, while McGhee (preseason all-ASUN first team as well) shot an impressive 39 percent from 3-point range and at 5-foot-8 was the team’s third leading rebounder a year ago.
“At all of 5-8, Darius has some broad shoulders. He’s a terrific scorer; he scored 3,000 points in high school but because of his size was probably overlooked by some colleges,” McKay said. “But that was all the better for us. He’s tough-minded and brings a sense of confidence. Elijah Cuffee is a really good shooter, and our version of (Boston Celtics guard) Marcus Smart. The two of them will carry the load and give us the ‘this is what it takes’ leadership. They’ve helped us win a lot of games.”
The Flames have five newcomers out of their top 11 players, so there’s a fair bit of jockeying to do to see who emerges. Shiloh Robinson and Kyle Rode, both sophomores, are primed to increase their roles and at 6-7, provide much of the size Liberty can bring to the floor.
That’s a huge topic for the team as it tangles with Purdue at the Space Coast Challenge, as McKay has done his research on the big bodies and resumes of the Boilermakers. He’s also making sure his team is mentally in the right place, as the static and duress of last season’s dramatic halt is the kind of thing that can linger.
“It’s an ongoing process. One of the hardest things about last year was going into the locker room when we were supposed to practice and telling the guys the tournament had been cancelled,” McKay said. “We had played the conference tournament, earned the No. 1 seed and got to play in front of a sold-out arena, and cut the nets. You can imagine the adulation. And for the NCAA’s … some of the anxiousness you have that first trip is eased when you get back. This group was very well-seasoned and probably had a chance. They wouldn’t have been afraid of the moment.
“Fast forward, we’re grateful no one in our families has been negatively impacted by the virus, and we’ve tried to really pay attention to our guys’ mental well-being. Surround them with a sense of love … we have some guys who are still recovering from the disappointment, but when the ball goes up Nov. 25, there will be a lot of joy and excitement that we’ve been afforded the chance to play again.”