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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 20 Liberty Flames

Liberty is more experienced, better, and deeper than last year

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Liberty vs Mississippi State Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

2018-19 Record: 29-7 (14-2 ASUN), NCAA Tournament Second Round
Key Returning Players: Myo Baxter-Bell (F, RS-Sr.), Elijah Cuffee (G, Jr.), Caleb Homesley (G, RS-Sr.), Scottie James (F, RS-Sr.), Darius McGhee (G, So.), Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz (G, Sr.)
Key Losses: Lovell Cabbil, Keenan Gumbs
Key Newcomers: Kyle Rode (Fr., F), Josh Price (RS-Fr., G), Marten Maide (Fr., G), Shiloh Robinson (Fr., F)

Liberty enjoyed its breakout last March, taking down Lipscomb in the ASUN title game and pulling off an impressive comeback to top Mississippi State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Caleb Homesley scored 30 points in the win over the Bulldogs, while Scottie James’ heroics against the Bisons earned him some national attention.

Homesley and James both return in 2019-20, along with eight of the Flames’ top 10 scorers. It’s enough to make Liberty the easy favorite to win the ASUN again, and as last year showed us, that means they might be in position to make an at-large argument if — and only if — A LOT bounces their way.

What might make it a little tougher this year is that Lovell Cabbil is gone. Cabbil was the best three-point shooter on the team and one of the best in the conference — he connected on 48 percent of his attempts in ASUN games last year.

But with every departure comes a chance for someone else to step up. McKay is high on Elijah Cuffee — already an established product — and Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz. Pacheco-Ortiz came on strong at the end of last year, highlighted by a 16-point effort in the ASUN title game. It’s easy to say that he, Cuffee, Homesley, and Darius McGhee make a strong supporting cast around James, but that’s selling the four of them short. Come March, they all have the potential to find themselves on an all-ASUN team.

It’s hard to tell what to expect from the newcomers this year, given that head coaches are almost always overly complementary of their new pieces in the preseason. McKay made it clear in the Blue Ribbon Yearbook that he expects his freshmen (and redshirt freshmen) to be ready for serious minutes, and if that’s true, then Liberty may be even deeper than it was last year.

Key non-conference games

The downside to bursting onto the national scene with a remarkable season and NCAA Tournament upset, then following it up by returning almost everyone, is that few quality teams will want you on their schedule. Somehow, McKay was still able to give his teams some good opportunities. Teams don’t need to beat Duke and North Carolina in order to show they are deserving of a bid. As one committee member told me last year, the key is to try and schedule the best teams you think you can beat.

McKay did that here. ECU’s not going to knock anyone’s socks off, but it’s a chance to beat an AAC team. Grand Canyon is one of the better teams, perennially, in the WAC, and that game will be on national TV. Liberty could actually be favored in a buy game at Vanderbilt and will have a puncher’s chance at LSU. Liberty won’t be able to compile the sexiest resume, but from a numbers and exposure standpoint, McKay did the best he could.

Nov 8 vs. Radford
Nov. 16 at East Carolina
Dec. 8 vs. Grand Canyon (Jerry Colangelo Classic in Phoenix)
Dec. 14 at Vanderbilt
Dec. 29 at LSU

Three things to watch

Elijah Cuffee is ready to take on a bigger role

As a sophomore last year, Cuffee averaged 7.6 points per game, but shot 87 percent from the line and 42 percent from three. He had his fair share of remarkable games, but was also remarkably inconsistent. If that changes, Liberty can be even better than it was last year.

McKay told the Blue Ribbon Yearbook:

“Elijah is bigger, stronger, faster, a better shooter [than last year]. He has improved in all facets and I think he is one of the best defenders I have ever coached.”

The “better shooter” part is key. Cuffee played 26 minutes per game as a sophomore and that will increase as a junior. Without Cabill, Liberty will need him to be a knock-down three-point shooter. He was excellent last year, but now will be the first option (and it’d be nice if Pacheco-Ortiz can help as well.

That Ritchie McKay tempo

McKay has been a head coach for a while now, getting his start at Portland State in the mid-90s. Save for a few years as Tony Bennett’s associate head coach at Virginia, he’s been a head man ever since. McKay has always run a slower-tempo offense, but six seasons alongside Bennett seems to have slowed him way down (surprise, surprise). The Flames ranked 349th in the nation in adjusted tempo last year, but like Virginia, they were also remarkably efficient. Liberty ranked second in the ASUN in overall offensive efficiency, first in two-point field goal percentage (shout out to Scottie James, 72% from 2), and second in effective field goal percentage.

Last season, our own Torrance Jones broke down their offense after watching them play Georgetown, and with basically the same personnel returning, fans can expect more of the same.

Thin margin for error

We talked about Lipscomb and Liberty’s at-large hopes ad nauseam last year. Why? Because every loss felt like it might be the end of their NCAA Tournament dreams. The committee did not invite both to dance in 2019, but gave us some hope by rewarding Belmont for a strong overall resume. Still, Liberty will have to be nearly perfect in-conference once again — that slip-up against North Florida would have been deadly had the Flames not won the ASUN Tournament.

A weak Island of the Bahamas Showcase bracket makes things a little tougher in the non-league portion of the schedule and the Flames will probably have to beat one of the two SEC schools it will travel to in order to have an at-large argument. It’s not fair at all, but don’t worry: we’ll probably debate this at least 60 times between now and March.

X Factor

If the freshmen can provide additional depth

Any team that returns eight of its 10 leading scorers is going to have some depth, but there’s reason to think that Liberty has even more going for it than that. Kyle Rode comes to Liberty as a composite three-star recruit, per 247sports, and the highest-rated recruit in school history. He was also a nominee for Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball, which sources say is a big deal in that state.

Shiloh Robinson, another forward, was ranked as the second-best prospect in Nebraska last year, Marten Maide has some international experience with the Estonia U18 team, and Josh Price, who redshirted last year, is the son of former NBA player Mark Price.

McKay told Blue Ribbon that he expects Rode and Robinson to be ready to play right away. If a few of the freshmen can work their way into the regular rotation, then Liberty has more than enough to run away in the ASUN.