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What you need to know about the Liberty Flames

/ by Tyler Byrum
Presented By Chasen Boscolo
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In his second stint with the Liberty Flames, head coach Ritchie McKay has turned the program into a consistent postseason threat year after year. 

Few programs have navigated a transition like Liberty. The team made a lateral move, in terms of basketball affiliation, from the Big South to the Atlantic Sun just over three years ago. In the time since, they have won every conference championship available to them, regular-season and tournament. 

This bracket, the Flames find themselves as a No. 13 seed against No. 4 Oklahoma State and the projected No. 1 NBA Draft pick Cade Cunningham. 

Is Liberty positioned for another upset? Just two seasons ago, they won as a No. 12 seed in the First Round. 

An unexpected dominant year

This season is arguably McKay's best coaching job with the Flames. Liberty lost four of its top six players from a season ago, one that many pegged to do some real damage in the NCAA Tournament in 2020. A canceled tournament killed any notion of being able to accomplish that. 

With so many of the returners gone, Darius McGhee became the leader of the team. It took some time, and the nonconference stretch of the season could have been better, but eventually, Liberty was playing like it was one of the more experienced mid-majors in the country. Since Christmas, the team has only lost twice and only one of its last nine games was decided by single digits. 

Who knows if this will translate into the NCAA Tournament, but the Flames are definitely a mid-major team to watch.

 

Ritchie McKay's recent postseason success

McKay's brief first stint with Liberty was just fine before he went off to assist the Virginia program. His second stint though has been quite impressive since he took over before the 2015-16 season. 

This is the 55-year-old's sixth year since returning and has made the postseason five times (3 NCAAs, 2 CITs) including their postseason bid received for the canceled 2020 NCAA Tournament. 

On top of the conference tournament wins, the winning ways continued into the postseason. In each of those postseason runs (2020 notwithstanding), the Flames came through and won a game. This team and coach have a knack for winning in March, including their 2019 upset victory over fifth-seeded Mississippi State. 

Everyone can make a three

This season, the Flames have focused on their offense. The team is shooting 49% from the field and 39% from deep, scoring nearly 75 points a game. All of those statistics rank in the top half of the sport. Unsurprisingly, they like to take threes and are eighth in the NCAA making 10.3 3-pointers per game. 

Looking up and down the roster, there is no one that will shy away from taking the deep shot. Of their top nine rotational players, only one hasn't stepped behind the arc on occasion. Seven of the nine also shoot at a 36% clip or better from long range. That is a nightmarish situation to scout for by opposing teams. Nothing is worse than a bench player coming into a game and rattling off multiple threes. At least three Flames players could fit that bill. 

The leading guy, junior Darius McGhee, has delivered some big performances behind his 3-point game. Shooting at 41.3%, he makes 3-4 threes a contest.

While McGhee is their primary scoring option, don't overlook other players to step up in March.

Win games on the glass

Liberty simply does not let other teams get free possessions. Whether it's limiting turnovers or limiting fouls, you simply don't see it. Another area where they don't give up the ball is on the defensive glass. 

Don't count on getting many second-chance opportunities against the Flames. Only letting up 7.3 offensive boards per game on the year, opponents are forced to shoot well just to stay in the contest. 

It's not just one guy either. Everyone jumps in on the defensive glass. A whole different story on the offensive end though. 

A first-half team

Most of the teams in the sport score most of their points in the second half. At that point, everyone is warmed up, shots are falling and the game gets extended due to fouls, timeouts and other stoppages. Add in extra free throws and a higher percentage of shots going in during clutch time, that's where games are typically won or lost.

That is not the case for Liberty. More than half of their points are scored in the opening 20 minutes rather than the latter. Rarely do the Flames come out slow. 

 

In the NCAA Tournament that could be huge, especially in the First Round. A hot start could bury the opposition early and help dictate the game. That was seen in the 2018 NCAA Tournament when UMBC took control of its game against Virginia early. At the same time though, it does show that the team hasn't shown to complete second-half comebacks or compete in close games. At some point in the tournament, Liberty is going to have to score more points down the stretch to win.