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2013-14 Men's Hoops Outlook: Team Overview

October 28, 2013
|  Lynchburg, Va.
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As the Liberty men's basketball team prepares for its Nov. 8 season opener versus Randolph, LibertyFlames.com will provide a four-part preview of the 2013-14 season. Today's article provides a look back at the Flames incredible championship run, while also taking a glance at the upcoming season.

The Liberty men's basketball team walked off the floor in heartbreak, with tears filling their eyes. For the first time in program history, the squad had started 0-8. Despite being up by five points against Georgia State (Dec. 2, 2012), the Flames saw their lead erased and replaced by a buzzer-beating three-pointer in a 67-66 defeat.

Coming out of the locker room, point guard Davon Marshall made the long walk back up the tunnel for postgame interviews. Head coach Dale Layer met his floor general halfway and said, "Things will get better. I promise."
There is an old saying that states, "When a gifted team dedicates itself to unselfish trust and combines instinct with boldness and effort, it is ready to climb."

Things did get better in the months leading up to postseason play, but very few outside the Flames' locker room expected the team to make such a climb during the 2013 Big South Championship. One person that did was Layer, who kept reminding his players that the best basketball is played in March.

"I'm very thankful that we had enough character in our players to just keep grinding each day and get better," Layer stated. "Once we had that, it gave us a chance. Working hard doesn't guarantee you anything, but it does give you a chance and that's what we had."

The Flames took their skipper's words to heart heading into the postseason. Liberty's incredible journey began with an opening round game against the tournament host, Coastal Carolina. After upsetting the Chanticleers, 78-61, on their home court, the Flames set their sights on North Division champion High Point. A 19-point second-half lead dwindled to one in the closing seconds of the contest, forcing Liberty to make a defensive stop en route to a 61-60 win.

In the semifinals, the Flames squared off with one of the hottest teams in the conference in Gardner-Webb. The Runnin' Bulldogs were on an eight-game win streak with no intentions of slowing down. A tightly contested matchup throughout, Liberty brought Gardner-Webb's run to a halt with another narrow victory (65-62).

Realizing how far they had come, the Flames put on a show in their ESPN2-televised championship game against Charleston Southern. Playing through injury and a sleepless night, John Caleb Sanders led the Flames with 27 points, while Davon Marshall capped off a Big South Tournament MVP performance with 20 points in the 87-76 victory. Along with Marshall and Sanders, senior guard Tavares Speaks rounded out the Flames' Big South all-tournament selections.

Upon punching a ticket to their third NCAA Tournament appearance, the Flames immediately received national media attention. In the week and a half leading up to Liberty's NCAA First Four game, media outlets such as ESPN Radio, ESPNU, Yahoo! Sports, The New York Times, The Washington Post and national radio programs from CBS, NBC and Fox Sports covered Liberty's incredible Big South Championship run. The Flames even kicked off the CBS Selection Show, as the network cut to the team celebrating the announcement of their First Four matchup.

Liberty's game in Dayton, Ohio against North Carolina A&T officially kicked off the 2013 NCAA Tournament. In a back-and-forth contest that featured a myriad of highlight reel plays, Liberty had a chance to earn its first-ever NCAA Tournament win in the final possession.  Unfortunately for the Flames, their season came to an end with a 73-72 Aggies victory. Regardless of the result, no one could deny what the Flames were able to accomplish.

"I think the work that God did in the hearts of our players and coaches during that stretch will be a memory I will never forget," Layer recalled. "Our guys battled through the adversity of the early season and were rewarded in a way they will never forget. "

Layer added, "It was a special run in many ways against all the odds. We probably had the hardest draw of anybody in [the Big South Championship] and when you do that in the face of the adversity we had overcome, it's terrific."

When looking back at the adversity, which included injuries to Antwan Burrus, Tomasz Gielo and Joel Vander Pol along with a couple roster defections, the sting of an 0-8 start only made matters worse. Despite the setbacks, Layer remained confident his team could piece things together with the players he had left. Gielo and Vander Pol eventually returned to the lineup, giving Layer's squad the stability it needed.

"I thought all along if we'd just hang in there and keep working, we had a chance for success once we got into league play," Layer said. "Once you get a little success, you can gain momentum and confidence. We were always a month behind, then two weeks behind, and then late in the year I thought we were close."

At the beginning of March, very few knew just how close the Flames were to achieving something special. Now, after accomplishing something that seemed impossible, Layer and his squad enter the 2013-14 campaign aiming to repeat as Big South champions. With 12 players returning to this year's squad, Layer recognizes the impact the Flames' championship run had heading into the new season.

"It affects everything that we do, think about, how hard we work, our confidence and the spirit of our guys in every way," Layer noted. "It's just an incredible encouragement that all the hard work last year paid off in a way that they will always appreciate, remember and embrace. When you have that experience, it allows you to push a little bit more and commit a little more time and energy in order to experience that again."

On paper, this year's Flames squad is undoubtedly one of the most experienced teams during Layer's Liberty tenure. This season's roster includes six seniors – Burrus, JR Coronado, Marshall, Casey Roberts, Sanders and Vander Pol, all of which are expected to play significant minutes.

"You typically can't win league titles without experienced teams," Layer said. "We do have a very experienced team with six seniors.  We will go where they will take it. It's not that they will make every basket and get every rebound, but those are the guys that will have to shoulder the load that's going to be necessary to be as good as we can be."

A number of players gained some valuable experience during the offseason. Gielo and Coronado suited up for the Polish and Venezuelan national teams, respectively. Andrew Smith went on a basketball-related missions trip to the Dominican Republic.  Vander Pol and Ethan Layer journeyed to Germany, France and Belgium with a ministry known as News Release Basketball. Meanwhile, Burrus and Marshall played for Athletes in Action in Jamaica.

"All of them had great experiences as people, as believers, as basketball players," Layer noted. "It affected them in every way. All of these experiences allowed them to mature and grow not only as a basketball player but as a person."

Although he has confidence in his veteran team, Layer knows it isn't wise to think too far ahead. Ever since he arrived at Liberty, he's constantly reminded his players to take one day at a time. Undoubtedly, that philosophy played a role in the Flames' ability to turn an 0-8 start into a championship season. While the thought of repeating as champions is appealing, Layer expects his team to focus on what's directly in front of them each day.

"I just want them to have a great day today, he stated. "If you start thinking about six months from now, you can't do today very well. If we have a good day today and come back tomorrow and have a good day, meaning that we work hard, we are engaged, and we intend on improving, it gives you a chance.

Layer added, "You can't control a lot of things that will happen between now and then, other than what you can do on a daily basis. We do have expectations of going to the [NCAA Tournament], but you can't do that without the day-to-day grind that it's going to take to put in the work necessary for that to happen."