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Men's Hoops: Previewing the 2007-08 Season
On March 26, 2007, a beautiful spring day in Lynchburg, Va., Liberty University Director of Athletics Jeff Barber stepped to the microphone in the Grand Lobby of the Arthur S. DeMoss Learning Center and ushered in a new era of Liberty Basketball.
Barber announced that Ritchie McKay would become the seventh head coach in the history of the Flames basketball program. McKay arrives on Liberty Mountain with 11 years of Division I head coaching experience, after spending the past five seasons at the helm at New Mexico. Prior to his stint with the Lobos, McKay spent time at Oregon State, Colorado State and Portland State before joining the Flames.
The credentials McKay brings from the West Coast are noteworthy. McKay led New Mexico to the 2005 Mountain West Conference (MWC) Championship with a 26-7 record, with the 26 wins representing the second-highest total in the Lobos' 103-year history. His 1999 Colorado State squad went deep into the postseason NIT Tournament, with wins over Colorado and Mississippi State. McKay then was awarded the College Hoops Insider magazine 2000 MWC Coach of the Year award the following season.
McKay resurrected a program at Portland State in 1995, which had been doormat for 15 years. The turnabout prompted him to be named a finalist along with Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski for the Clair Bee Award, given annually to the coach with the most influence and innovation on the game of basketball. If that is not impressive enough, McKay has sent 22 players into the professional basketball ranks in 11 years of coaching, including seven to the NBA.
McKay's clubs are not just successful on the court, but in the classroom as well. McKay boasts a 100 percent graduation rate of players who have spent at least three years in his system, and his 2007 New Mexico team had the highest team GPA since the institution started tracking such statistics in 1988.
With McKay in place, it was time for the new skipper to assemble his staff. The family-oriented McKay looked no further than one of his closest and dearest friends, Brad Soucie.
"Brad has been with me every day I have been a head coach," said McKay. Soucie joined McKay at Portland State in 1995 and has followed him every step of the way. "Brad is not only skilled in his trade, but he is a great friend, a man of God and we really are family," added McKay.
McKay's next target was another close friend, Dale Layer. The McKay and Layer connection goes back 18 years to 1989. That was the year McKay got his first full-time job in coaching, at Queens College in Charlotte, N.C., as an assistant under Layer. Even though McKay stayed for just one season, the ties were such that eight years later, when McKay took the head coaching job at Colorado State, he immediately thought of Layer to serve on his staff. When McKay left for Oregon State in 2000, Layer was awarded the Rams' head coaching position.
Layer enjoyed a successful run at Colorado State, averaging 15 wins per year, while competing in a very talented MWC, with the likes of Air Force, BYU, New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV, Utah and Wyoming. Each of those teams made at least one trip to the NCAA Tournament during his tenure with the Rams.
"Dale's integrity, experience, coaching ability and the way he works with guys individually is a tremendous asset," noted McKay. "For us to have someone of his stature help develop our young people and develop our program is priceless."
There is no doubt Layer can find and develop players. One such player is former Colorado State center Jason Smith. The seven-footer, who was very raw coming out of high school, scored over 1,500 points for Layer's Rams during the past three seasons. Due in part to his development under Layer's tutelage, Smith was chosen with the 20th selection of the NBA Draft's first round by the Miami Heat. Moments after the selection, the Heat traded the rights to Smith to the Philadelphia 76ers.
McKay finalized his staff by retaining Jason Eaker from the previous staff. Eaker spent the previous two seasons as the Flames' Director of Basketball Operations after being a member of Oklahoma's 2005 Big XII regular-season championship coaching staff.
"Jason has been tremendous," said McKay. "He is a young superstar in this business and I am happy we were able to retain him."
The new staff has nicely jelled together with the team quickly. "Any healthy family is built on the quality of its relationships," stated McKay. "Our staff has the agenda of being a part of something bigger than ourselves."
With that in mind, McKay jumped at the opportunity to build community within the program by participating in an international tour of Canada over Labor Day weekend. The NCAA allows a basketball program to take such a preseason trip to an international location once every four years.
"The trip was valuable in terms of bonding, as well as giving us the chance to jump start on implementing a new system," stated McKay.
The trip was a success, as the Flames were victorious with wins over Brock University and the University of Guelph, both located in Ontario, Canada.
As the upcoming season approaches, one can see that strong pieces from last year's team return, for the start of the Ritchie McKay era, after finishing third in the Big South a year ago. "We are fortunate the previous staff recruited a pretty good level of player," said McKay. "We have guys who will listen, and that combination allows us something to build on."
With many quality players back, the Flames will be looking for respect, after being picked to finish sixth in the Big South Conference preseason poll voted on by coaches, sports information directors and members of the media.
The guard-oriented Flames lost two big scorers in all-time Big South scoring leader Larry Blair, who finished with 2,211 career points, and Dwight Brewington, who left school a year early to pursue a professional basketball career. The duo combined for an average of 35.1 points per game in 2006-07.
On the surface, it appears a lot was lost, but there is still plenty of firepower in the Flames arsenal. Junior Anthony Smith looks to emerge on the scene in a big way. The Plano, Texas, native is in the process of becoming Liberty's version of Dominique Wilkins, who was known as the "Human Highlight Film." Smith's aerial acrobatics earned him with spots on ESPN's Top 10 Plays and ESPN's College GameNight Gym Gems last season. "Anthony has the talent to be a pro, and the more success he has at the collegiate level, the higher level he will reach professionally," said McKay. Smith, who averaged 11.4 points per game as a sophomore will pick up a lot of the slack left by the departure of Blair and Brewington.
The anticipation of point guard TeeJay Bannister has been a year in the making. Bannister, a senior from Jacksonville, Fla., transferred to Liberty by way of Virginia, where he appeared in 76 games for the Cavaliers. Bannister had to sit out the 2006-07 season due to the NCAA transfer rule.
"There is a reason TeeJay was in the ACC," said McKay. "He is a unique player, as it relates to his adept ability to get penetration." Liberty, which has been without a true point guard since the departure of Brian Woodson in 2005, will go as far as Bannister can lead them. "If he is as good a leader as he is a player, our team will be very successful," added McKay.
The Flames saw flashes of brilliance from B.J. Jenkins last season, as the youngster was one of the top freshmen in the conference. The Virginia Beach native will be leaned upon more as a sophomore after being a key reserve a year ago. "B.J. has great upside," commented McKay. "He is talented, tough-minded and a tremendous person. The better he is, the better we will be."
Look for junior Justin Holland to provide a spark off the bench for the Flames. After spending most of his freshman year hurt, Holland was able to play a key role as a reserve for the Flames last season. His confidence will be a big asset for Liberty off the bench.
Walk-on Kyle Ohman has landed himself the perfect opportunity. Ohman, who saw limited action in 10 games as a freshman, has a big supporter in McKay. "Kyle is a very undervalued and underappreciated player," said McKay. "I can discuss his role and what we expect from him, but the bottom line is that he is a winner. He helps teams win games. He is just that type of player and person." Ohman should see significant playing time this season in the shooting guard position.
There are also two newcomers to the guard mix, freshman Jeremy Anderson and sophomore Tim Layer. Anderson hails from Bowling Green, Ky., and could see a lot of court time as a freshman after becoming just the second player in the history of Kentucky high school basketball to appear in the state tournament five times. The only other player to do so was Richie Farmer, who has his jersey hanging from the rafters in Rupp Arena, after a stellar career playing for Rick Pitino and the Kentucky Wildcats.
"Jeremy could see a lot of minutes because of his proficient ability to shoot the basketball with consistency," commented McKay.
Layer is the son of assistant coach Dale Layer. The younger Layer looks for his first collegiate action after redshirting one season at Colorado State. "Tim can really shoot the basketball with range," said McKay. "Being a coach's son, he is smart on the court."
With a reminiscing smile McKay commented, "Since his dad was my first boss, I can remember babysitting for him. He has come a long way since then."
The 2006-07 season saw Liberty remerge with a presence in the post. The presence was Alex McLean, a native of Bay Shore, N.Y., who registered an 8.9 rebound average last season, the most by a Flame since Jason Dixon hauled in 9.0 caroms per game in 1995.
"Alex has ‘Player of the Year' potential," said McKay. "I haven't seen many people work as hard as he does. He has dedicated himself to individual improvement, which in turn directly impacts our team."
McLean was named to the Lindy's and Athlon Sports preseason all-conference teams. The senior earned the honors because he added strength for the Flames in the post last season, recording 12 double-doubles, while averaging 14.5 points per game. McLean's 8.9 boards per game placed him second in the conference.
Tyler Baker figures to become a tremendous threat for the Flames. At 6-9, Baker has the ability to jump out on the wing and be very successful shooting from three-point range. As a redshirt freshman, Baker hit 40 percent of his attempts from behind the three-point arc last season. The Albuquerque, N.M., native also shot 93 percent (25-of-27) from the charity stripe, missing only two attempts during his first year on the court for the Flames.
"I am familiar with Tyler from my days at New Mexico," stated McKay. "I thought he was a good player then, but I have since gained a greater appreciation for the value he adds to the team. He can hurt you in a lot of different ways, and I think he has the ability to do really good things in this program."
Rell Porter has been "ole reliable" the past three seasons for the Flames. When Liberty has needed a big basket or an even bigger rebound, the senior from Pittsburg, Texas, has been quick to answer the bell. McKay is big on Porter as well, "Rell is going to have a role for us that is directly tied to the confidence he has in himself."
Another body down low McKay will turn to is that of Armon Jones. The sophomore saw limited action last season, but looks to be a valuable option inside the paint.
Rounding out the forward crew are two freshmen, Nathan Campbell and Ozren Bjelogrlic`, each of whom will add depth for the Flames. Campbell is a native of Cary, N.C., and graduated from Cary High School. However, he comes to Liberty via Hargrave Military Academy in nearby Chatham, Va., where he spent a season playing prep basketball.
Bjelogrlic` is from Ploce, Croatia and spent his senior year of high school in the United States playing at national power Decatur Christian in Decatur, Ill., a school ranked as high as No. 6 in the nation during the 2006-07 season.
Senior Russell Monroe represents the lone center on the roster. Monroe, a crowd favorite over the past three seasons at the Vines Center, returns for his final year. "I wish he wasn't a senior because he continues to get better and better," said McKay. "Russell will help us this year."
At 6-11, Monroe is the tallest player on the Flames' roster and will spell McLean in the post. The Alma, Mich., native has a nice touch around the basket and has been cited by a few of his teammates as one player "everyone will be surprised by."
Kentucky, Virginia Tech, George Mason and the World Vision Classic hosted by Fresno State highlight the 2007-08 Liberty men's basketball schedule.
McKay and his staff will begin a new era in Liberty basketball against a familiar opponent when the Flames open up the season against San Diego State of the Mountain West Conference on Nov. 9. McKay, Layer and Soucie all spent considerable time in the MWC in their previous stops.
The Aztecs, the Flames' first opponent, are coached by former Michigan "Fab Five" and national championship coach Steve Fisher, and the game is part of Fresno State's World Vision Classic, to be played at the Save Mart Center in Fresno, Calif. Liberty will then face host Fresno State of the Western Athletic Conference on Nov. 10 and Portland of the West Coast Conference on Nov. 11, in its final two games of the tournament.
The Flames return to Lynchburg to face Coker in their home opener on Nov. 13 before hitting the road again, taking on East Carolina on Nov. 17. Then, for the third-straight year, Liberty will square off with an opponent from the SEC, as the Flames return to Rupp Arena to face Kentucky on Nov. 21. Liberty faced Kentucky and Mississippi State in 2006 and two-time defending National Champion Florida in 2007.
Liberty returns home for three-straight contests, starting with Longwood on Nov. 27. Niagara comes to town on Dec. 1, returning the game from last season's O'Reilly ESPNU BracketBuster contest. Niagara is one-of-four opponents Liberty will face that reached the NCAA Tournament in 2007. Presbyterian, which recently joined the Big South Conference but won't be an official full-time member until 2011-12, comes to the Vines Center on Dec. 4.
McKay will then take his squad to Campbell on Dec. 15 and Virginia Tech on Dec. 19 before returning home on Dec. 28 to face Campbell and close the season series with the Camels. Liberty is currently riding two-game winning streaks against both Campbell and Virginia Tech.
Liberty travels to George Mason, two seasons removed from its 2006 Final Four team, on Dec. 30 before returning on Jan. 5 to face Nyack. The Flames will then host Kentucky Christian on Jan. 8 before beginning Big South play on Jan. 12 at UNC Asheville, followed by a Jan. 15 game at Winthrop. The Eagles became the first team in Big South history to reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament, with their upset of Notre Dame in 2007.
The Flames open up the home portion of their conference schedule with three-straight games, beginning with Charleston Southern on Jan. 19. Coastal Carolina comes to the Vines Center on Jan. 21, followed by High Point on Jan. 26.
Liberty takes to the road again when it travels to face the highest-scoring squad in the nation last season in the Keydets of VMI on Jan. 28. The Flames then go to Radford on Feb. 2 and High Point on Feb. 6. UNC Asheville comes to Lynchburg on Feb. 9, as does Winthrop on Feb. 12.
The final road swing of the regular season begins on Feb. 16 at Coastal Carolina, followed by a Feb. 18 match-up at Charleston Southern and a meeting with local rival Longwood on Feb. 22. Liberty closes the regular season at home against VMI on Feb. 26 and rival Radford on March 1.
The Big South Men's Basketball Championship begins with the quarterfinals on March 4 at the home of the higher seed. The semifinals, which will be broadcast on ESPNU, will be played at the site of the regular-season champion. ESPN will broadcast the championship game on March 8, at the home of the highest remaining seed. The NCAA Tournament starts March 20-23, with the first two rounds being played at various locations across the country.
"I am really pleased to be able to attract the schedule we did," said McKay. "Playing the likes of Kentucky and Virginia Tech, which each made the NCAA Tournament last season, will be good for our guys and our program."
"When you add San Diego State, Fresno State, Portland and Niagara, we feel like our schedule is very competitive," stated McKay. "I think the schedule will better prepare us for Big South Conference play."
Six teams on the Flames schedule reached the postseason in 2007. Kentucky, Niagara, Virginia Tech and Winthrop all made the NCAA Tournament, while Fresno State and San Diego State both participated in the NIT.
A New Era …
Generations come and go. Spring turns to winter. This has been the procedure throughout the sands of time. So as dawn broke on the Ritchie McKay era at Liberty, the world saw the sun set on the life of the university's founder and No. 1 fan, Dr. Jerry Falwell. Although there will be a notable absence in the stands this season, Liberty University continues to stand as a living legacy of its founder.
"Liberty is a special place," said McKay. "In all my years of coaching, I have never felt such an allegiance to a university and its mission. I feel very blessed to have been afforded the opportunity to be a part of this institution and be inspired by Dr. Falwell, both when he was with us and now that he is in a better place. I am honored to be a part of the big picture of advancing what he originally set out to accomplish, and now his sons and family continue."
It might be a new era on Liberty Mountain for Flames Basketball, but it's an era inspired by the university's original mission.