As the Big South expanded to twelve teams this year with the addition of Longwood, a two division set up was created to mimic many other conferences (like the Southern). The divisional set up is already paying dividends and heating up some local rivals, especially in Virginia where four Big South schools make their home. One of these rivalries is Liberty versus Radford as the two schools squared off for the first time in 2013 on Tuesday night.
Both schools have very different teams and very different stories this year. Radford is the second year of a total overhaul from former VCU assistant Mike Jones. Jones' roster currently features eight freshmen and four sophomores. The Highlanders had to take one of those super rough rebuilding seasons going 6-26 and 2-16 in the conference a year ago.
The lumps taken last year seemed to pay off though. as Radford started the season 5-3, but they have since dropped six out of their last seven. The Highlanders came into Tuesday night's game at 10-13 and 4-5 in the conference. After two straight losses, Mike Jones' squad was just looking to get a big win and be on the right side of .500. A loss would drop Radford to fifth place in the six team North Division.
Liberty is a bit different of a squad with a veteran head coach, Dale Layer, and a slew of JUCO transfers that has earned the moniker "Frankenteam" around the Big South. The label made sense early as the Flames started the season with a 1-10 mark, and the team lacked cohesion and any sort of identity.
It got worse for Liberty when an assistant coach was put on administrative leave for felony drug charges and Jarred Jourdan (one of those JUCO transfers) quit the team, but Dale Layer's hot seat may have cooled off a bit with four big conference wins in the Vines Center this year. Liberty came into the game Tuesday with a 7-16 mark and a 3-6 conference record. Obviously, a win could tie them with Radford and get them back in the thick of things in the North as everyone is looking for that first round bye in the Big South tournament.
The game was tight throughout last night with Liberty leading at the half 35-31. Radford was able to pull within two with about thirty-five seconds left, but then went cold and dropped a 75-70 final. Despite the Flames big conference win, the story of the night had to be Highlanders sophomore Javonte Green. Green dropped 23 points and grabbed 13 boards for his sixth double-double of the year, but just couldn't find any help from his Radford teammates. RJ Price and Rashun Davis combined for 25 points, but Price's five turnovers were killer.
The biggest thing that stood out was Radford's lack of steals. As you can imagine, Mike Jones will try to mimic Shaka Smart's "HAVOC" style of defense from time to time. That carbon copy has paid off this year as the Highlanders came into the game ranked twelfth in the country in steals at 9.3. Despite that the Highlanders weren't able to capitalize on a team with relatively weak guard play in Liberty and only had five steals Tuesday.
For Liberty the story has to be their offense. I don't know where it came from, but the Flames had been averaging in the mid-60s all year and have exploded for nearly 80 points per game over their last four Big South contests. The two guys you have to point at are veterans Tavares Speaks and John Caleb Sanders, who combined for 35 points last night.
Sanders looked like he was trying to be his brother Jesse earlier in the year, but has settled down a little and is now running an effective offense. JUCO transfer JR Coronado continues to be a beast on the boards with 11 last night and is now second in the conference in that category. Coronado is just inept offensively though. If the Flames could start to get some kind of offensive production out of him then they could grow into a real force approaching the conference tourney in Myrtle Beach.
These two rivals now find themselves tied in the Big South standings at 4-6. Both are now within striking distance of VMI and Campbell (pending tonight's results) and can now contend for that first round bye at the beach. Liberty has a tough stretch of two road games versus Gardner-Webb and Campbell.
Radford is just trying to find away to win after losing three straight. Thankfully for Highlander fans, Big South doormat Presbyterian is coming to town Saturday. If both teams can get it going their March 2 match up (the last conference game of the year) could be pretty meaningful up in the mountains of Radford.