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2011-12 Men's Basketball Outlook: Part 1
With the 2011-12 men's basketball season just over two weeks away, LibertyFlames.com is featuring a four-part series that will preview the upcoming year. Today's article provides a general overview of this year's team. Check back with the website in the coming days for an in-depth look at the Flames' roster.
Legendary actor and five-time Olympic gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller once said, "With but few exceptions, it is always the underdog who wins through sheer willpower."
Picked to finish sixth in the Big South Conference standings, the Liberty men's basketball team surprised the league during the 2010-11 campaign by closing out the regular season with a second place finish.
The Flames' will to win became evident from the onset of the conference season. After besting Presbyterian College and defending Big South champion Winthrop inside the Vines Center, head coach Dale Layer's team had already done something no other Liberty squad had ever done – start the conference season 2-0.
Liberty picked up wins over Gardner-Webb, UNC Asheville and Charleston Southern to move to 5-0 before narrowly falling to eventual regular-season champion Coastal Carolina, 70-67, inside the Vines Center (Jan. 8). Despite the defeat, Liberty proved its unprecedented start was no fluke. The team ended the regular season as the Big South runner-up with a 13-5 conference record, setting a new program record for conference wins.
The Flames' unexpected success did not go unnoticed. For guiding his team to a second-place finish in the conference standings, head coach Dale Layer was voted Big South Coach of the Year, becoming the first men's basketball coach in Liberty history to garner the award.
Point guard Jesse Sanders achieved a Liberty first, as well. The Sugar Land, Texas native was voted the 2010-11 Big South Player of the Year, averaging 11.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game. For his on-court accomplishments, Sanders also garnered Associated Press (AP) All-America Honorable Mention.
Concluding the season with a 19-13 record, the Flames enter the 2011-12 campaign no longer labeled underdogs. Layer's squad also possesses a more veteran quality compared to the skipper's first two years at the helm. However, as Layer is well aware, with greater experience comes greater responsibility.
"I think we exceeded expectations a year ago," he stated. "That's the mark of a good team and a fun team to be around. But the expectations are higher now. We're going to have to meet the challenge. We're not going to sneak up on anybody or catch anyone off guard."
He added, "I think we'll probably go as far as our seniors will take us. They are experienced guys who have had success, individually and collectively. Their leadership, drive and work ethic are going to have to carry the rest of us in order to have a good season."
During the summer, Layer had the opportunity to hold 10 practices with his team in preparation for the Flames' 2011 Foreign Tour (Aug. 9-18). Every four years, the NCAA allows a program to take an international trip. The Flames used the opportunity to play six exhibition games in parts of Belgium and France against various professional clubs. After guiding his team to a 4-2 record in exhibition play, Layer is pleased with the direction his squad is headed.
"I think we are finally balanced in our classes and balanced in our experience," Layer said. "That's where you want to be every year. We haven't been there the last two years. Whether that means 28 wins or 6 wins, I don't know. That's something you've got to earn. Every team is different. Every season is different. You deal with different adversity, different challenges and this team will have those types of challenges this year."
Heading into the 2011-12 season, the Flames have already experienced a considerable amount of adversity before even stepping onto the court.
On Sept. 1, Layer has announced that redshirt senior guard John Brown will miss the entire 2011-12 season due to a knee injury. Brown suffered the injury during an open gym session with his teammates.
"It is with great sadness that we received the word from the doctors regarding John Brown's injury," Layer stated. "In such a short period, he has embodied all that we strive for in our program."
The presence of Brown at the three spot proved to be a huge catalyst for the Flames' success last season. Stepping onto the court at 6-4, 195 lbs., the transfer from Roane State ranked No. 8 in the country in rebounding, averaging 10.8 boards per game. Brown's 11.3 points per game also gave the Flames' an additional scoring boost.
"He has been a tremendous competitor, highly productive player, great leader and excellent student," Layer added. "We will miss him in many ways on the court. Our prayers go with him into surgery and the rehabilitation process. He will remain a big part of our team from the sidelines."
Looking at the rest of the returnees and newcomers on the Flames' roster this season, Layer is pleased with the balance of talent and experience his team possesses. With the squad no longer considered an underdog, the skipper feels the Flames are poised to build upon last year's success.
"Expectations are always high. That's the way it should be," Layer said. "I think our experience probably matches some of those expectations for the first time in my three years, now going into my third year. To have the player of the year back, a good recruiting class and experienced depth, we're finally getting the team on solid footing and establishing a program instead of just trying to piece together some players to have a good year."