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The following article first appeared in issue No. 2 of the Flames Illustrated game program for the 2011-12 basketball season, which was available at the Vines Center between Dec. 1-20. Heading in Saturday's game at High Point, John Caleb Sanders is second on the team in scoring averaging 11.8 ppg.
NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry is known for his unorthodox but accurate underhanded free throw shooting. He also is known for having quite a brood of basketball players.
Four of his sons – Scooter, Jon, Brent and Drew – claim NBA careers. Jon and Brent also followed their dad with a move to the broadcasting booth after their playing days were finished.
The Sanders family has not quite reached the basketball popularity the Barrys claim, but on Liberty Mountain, the two younger Sanders boys have become quite the attraction.
Older brothers Ethan and Thomas paved the way for playing college hoops. Ethan played at Moody Bible, in Chicago, Ill., while Thomas received honorable-mention All-American honors and was named conference player of the year when he played at Gardner-Webb.
As a senior, Jesse already has established a successful college career. With many personal achievements, including Big South Player of the Year honors, he also is on pace to being Liberty's all-time assists leader.
So, what about the youngest Sanders? John Caleb is coming off a "really solid freshman season," as Liberty head coach Dale Layer has described.
He averaged 3.9 points a game last year and led the Flames in three-point field goal percentage (34-for-100, .340). Averaging 12 minutes a game, he provided a shooting spark off the bench.
John Caleb's best shooting performance was against Coastal Carolina, as he hit 4-of-6 treys for his season-high 16 points. He earned Big South Freshman of the Week honors for the outing.
With the Flames experiencing personnel changes this season, some due to injuries, John Caleb will have to play a bigger role this year. So far, little brother definitely has stepped up.
"John Caleb has improved his work ethic, his defense, his approach to each practice and each game," said Layer. "His play is a direct correlation to how he approaches each day now. He's just grown up, and things are easier for him now because he's more familiar. He's always been very talented, but now he's added some work ethic and maturity to that, and you're seeing the results in his play."
In the season opener at Texas A&M, John Caleb led LU in scoring with 18 points, including a 16-point second half performance. With his hometown about an hour away from College Station, Texas, the sophomore said having almost 400 family members and friends in the stands definitely was a motivating factor.
He followed that performance with 17 points against Randolph College, and reached double figures in scoring for the third-straight contest with 12 points against William & Mary.
Having Jesse as the Flames' point guard is a plus for John Caleb. The two were successful together in high school, as they won back-to-back national home school championships and recorded a 41-3 record during John Caleb's sophomore year.
"They do have a special chemistry with one another," said Layer. "Jesse seems more comfortable with John Caleb on the floor. They work well together. They use each other's strengths. I think they have a sense to know where the other is going to be since they've played together for at least 10-12 years growing up. When you have that kind of chemistry together you're bound to have some success playing off one another."
John Caleb definitely enjoys the opportunity he has to play with Jesse. He said they have always had a knack to play well together all these years.
"It's always been Jesse and John Caleb together more than against each other," said John Caleb. "He always was looking to pass to get the assist, and I'm looking to score, so there's never really been much controversy. Being at Liberty, it's been the exact same thing. We complement each other on the floor."
Layer said John Caleb has earned the right to be in the starting lineup, but the sophomore will need to continue working on his overall performance in order to remain a starter.
"His defense has to continue to be a priority with him," said Layer. "Last year, he struggled making it a priority. He has improved considerably in that area but still has a way to go yet. I think his ability to create shots for other people definitely has improved.
"He needs to make good decisions all the time and continue to have great energy and intensity defensively," Layer said. "When he does those things, his shot seems to fall a little bit better for him. When shooters come out just wanting to shoot the ball, sometimes they struggle, but if they think about contributing in other areas, they get a better flow. I think John Caleb has figured that out."
Something else John Caleb has figured out is how the team chemistry is even better since the Flames played in Europe this past summer.
"The guys were really close while we were over there," John Caleb said. "We didn't know how to speak the language, so you're basically sticking with your teammates and friends. We know each other so much better than we did before we went over there. I think that experience will help us in the long run."
Liberty fans know they have an exciting feature on the floor this season, watching the Sanders brothers play their final college year together. Brother tandems are not that unique in college hoops, but this one could be special to see this year in the Vines Center – at least younger brother knows it is a special privilege for him.
"I've been blessed with a great opportunity," said John Caleb. "With Jesse as the point guard, it's an incredible setup. He is looking for me every play. We know how to play together. It's amazing. It's a big reason why I came to Liberty. Not only being able to live with him, but also being able to play with him. I will miss him next year."
For now, Liberty fans, enjoy watching the Sanders brothers as they lead the Flames together.
Chris Doyle is a freelance writer for Liberty Athletics