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NCAA Tournament Profile: Can Liberty pull off another upset?

The Flames will look to win a game for the second consecutive NCAA Tournament.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-San Jose Practice Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

For the third consecutive year the Liberty Flames have won the ASUN Tournament, and with it, the conference’s March Madness auto bid.

But this team is different from the previous iterations that made waves on the national stage. Can the 2020-21 squad reach similar heights?

What’s New and What’s Still the Same?

Gone are nearly all the major contributors from the 2018-19 team that won 29 games and pulled off the classic 12-5 upset over Mississippi State. The gang came back for one more ride last season, winning 30 games and looking like they were going to be the “this upset pick is almost TOO trendy” team for 2019-20. But then March Madness was cancelled and all the seniors graduated.

We’re left with Darius McGhee, ably stepping in where Caleb Homesley left off as the ASUN Player of the Year, and Elijah Cuffee, a lockdown perimeter defender, as the remaining contributors from those back-to-back juggernauts.

Ritchie McKay still runs his Virginia-lite, maddeningly efficient, plodding offense and suffocating defense, there just aren’t as many high-level guys as in years past. And the metrics agree. Two seasons ago, the Flames finished 58th in KenPom. Last season, they were 79th when things shut down. This season? 97th, barely in the top-100.

What Are the Chances of an Upset?

KenPom rankings aren’t everything. But if a 20-spot drop isn’t enough to scare you off the potential upset pick, then their first round opponent should be enough. Both Liberty and Oklahoma State were done a disservice when they were placed against each other in the 4-13 matchup. The Flames were on the correct seed line, but they were handed an opponent that, by all accounts, probably should have been a 2 or 3 seed.

Unlike a lot of mid-major programs whose non-conference schedules were decimated by COVID (like Belmont), Liberty was still able to face five Power 5 schools prior to conference play. It wasn’t exactly a murderer’s row, but wins vs Mississippi State and South Carolina, plus close losses vs TCU and at Missouri (and a double-digit loss at Purdue) count for something. But none of those teams have Cade Cunningham.

If any double-digit seed mid-major squad is equipped to upset the Cowboys, it’s Liberty. The Flames rank third in the nation in scoring defense, behind just Loyola-Chicago and Houston. They have a strong perimeter defender in Cuffee to throw at Cunningham. They shoot efficiently, and they take care of the ball. But it will most likely take a perfect game from the Flames to pull it off.