Liberty basketball: Establishing an identity

liberty basketballBuilding an identity can be tough for a head coach, and at Liberty, Ritchie McKay has established a culture since returning to the Flames in 2015.

“What most people don’t see is the incredible growth that has happened or occurred in our program,” McKay said in his interview with LFSN’s Matt Warner. “We’ve changed the culture from the standpoint of I think where it was a little bit focused on ‘me’ to now it’s ‘we’ and I love that.”

Under McKay, Liberty continues to rewrite its record book having recorded back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time in school history. Appearing in back-to-back postseason tournaments, which is another first for the Flames, the program has gotten a sense of what it takes to win late in March. During the three years McKay has been back at Liberty, the Flames have faced 10 teams that have made it to the NCAA Tournament during that span. This past season, Liberty faced four NCAA Tournament teams that included Houston, who came within seconds of reaching the Sweet Sixteen. Liberty proved that it can compete with some of the best teams in the country, having lost to the Cougars by two points on a buzzer-beater earlier in the season.

Challenging themselves during non-conference against the likes of VCU, Notre Dame and UNCG translated into wins during conference play as Liberty made it to the Big South Championship title game for the first time since 2013. The Flames have never posted a losing record during Big South play under McKay and continued to end losing streaks such as snapping a 13-game losing skid at the Winthrop Coliseum that lasted 14 years. Liberty also ended another 13-game losing streak against UNC Asheville that spanned over seven years and the Flames were able to beat the Bulldogs two straight times at Kimmel Arena on their way to the Big South Championship title tilt.

The Flames continued to elevate their program with wins over an ACC opponent for the first time since 2008 going on the road to take down Wake Forest and defeating Georgia State, which appeared in the NCAA Tournament this season. In order to defeat a quality opponent, every team needs a backbone of its program and the Flames have hung their hat on the defensive end. In three seasons, McKay has quickly transformed Liberty’s identity and the Flames are now one of the toughest teams in the country to score against. They ranked No. 19 nationally in 2017 in scoring defense and jumped all the way to No. 9 this past season. Two teams that ranked right above Liberty in scoring defense made the Final Four this year in Michigan and Loyola Chicago.

“Having a chance to serve under Coach (Tony) Bennett, who’s the best in the nation, as per the course at UVA we got better and better each year,” McKay said. “I think we improved in that area in our third year as well. I like our guys’ buy in and commitment to the defensive end.”

Now looking forward to 2018-19, McKay can finally describe his team in a way he hasn’t been able to since his time at Liberty: older. Liberty returns four of its five starters including Big South All-Tournament selections Lovell Cabbil and Scottie James. The Flames averaged 70.8 points per game and the remaining returners were responsible for 52.6 of those points. In McKay’s first year at Liberty in 2007-08, the Flames had four upperclassmen that played at least 10 minutes per game, which was the most upperclassmen during his time at Liberty. Fast forward to this upcoming year, the Flames will return five upperclassmen that played at least 12 minutes per game.

“Coach Bennett and (Notre Dame head coach) Mike Bray, some of the great veterans that have been around and I follow closely always talk about getting old and we are finally old,” McKay said describing his team. “We know because of the history that these guys have enough playing experience to warrant the minutes they are going to get. The communication in our program is the best it’s ever been.”

It will be a mixture of experience and youth as the Flames welcome four new members to the squad as a trio of freshmen join the program in Darius McGhee, Blake Preston and Josh Price. After the season, McKay and his staff were able to find one of the best Division III players in the country, adding graduate transfer Keenan Gumbs.

“It’s that commitment to excellence (Liberty displays) that we feel so privileged to be a part,” McKay said. “I just hope our basketball program can continue to elevate itself in order to mesh into the fabric of what our intention is at this university. It is a special place.”

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