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2008-09 Men's Hoops Season Outlook

November 13, 2008  Lynchburg, Va.  RSS
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The men's hoops season opens tomorrow against Montreat. Tip-off is set for 9:15 p.m.

The men's hoops season opens tomorrow against Montreat. Tip-off is set for 9:15 p.m.

It has been nearly 50 years since a famous Hollywood film depicted a small Mexican farming village being terrorized by a bandit and his militia. As the story goes, the village elders send three farmers into the United States to search for gunman to defend them. Their search came up with seven, each of whom comes for a different reason and from a different walk of life. The cinematic classic was aptly titled "The Magnificent Seven", starring the likes of Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn.

Entering the 2008-09 men's basketball season, Liberty will have seven new faces on its roster, all freshmen, all coming from seven different walks of life. While it's premature to call the septet magnificent before any of them have played one minute of a collegiate contest, it is appropriate to call the class very special.

In the January 2008 Basketball Times, a publication covering collegiate basketball for over 25 years, ranked Liberty's 2008 recruiting class No. 48 in the nation. Liberty joined No. 26 Xavier, No. 31 Rhode Island, No. 36 Fresno State, No. 36 New Mexico, No. 36 St. Louis, No. 41 Dayton, No. 50 Hofstra and No. 50 Gonzaga as the only schools that are not a part of a BCS football power conference.

This class served not only as the Big South Conference and Liberty's first Top 50 ranking, but head coach Ritchie McKay's first too. "I have been a head coach in the Pac-10, Mountain West, Western Athletic and Big Sky Conferences, and we have been successful, but never had we been able to sign a Top 50 class," said McKay. "We signed nearly every player we set as a target. It is a testament to how special this class is and how special Liberty University is to attract the caliber athletes and human beings we have in this freshman class."

The impressive nature of the ranking is that only four of Liberty's seven freshmen are part of its ranking. Those four are Seth Curry (Charlotte, N.C.), Brolin Floyd (Ocala, Fla.), Carter McMasters (Chattanooga, Tenn.) and Austin Smith (Tucson, Ariz.). After the Basketball Times Top 50 list came out, Liberty added Jesse Sanders (Sugar Land, Texas) and Bill Weaver (Hampton, Va.) to the incoming class, which probably would have given the Flames a higher place in the Top 50. Sanders decommitted from a verbal agreement with Conference USA member Rice to attend Liberty, while Weaver did the same at Brown. Throw in Johnny Stephene (Boynton Beach, Fla.), a non-qualifier a year ago, and you have a group of basketball players which are in place to build a solid foundation, not only for the Ritchie McKay era, but for the future of the Liberty basketball program.

While most fans will need a game program to match all the new faces with the new names, one face Flame fans will immediately recognize is senior Anthony Smith. The only senior on the Liberty roster has been a high-flying act in every arena he has stepped in, since his arrival on Liberty Mountain in August of 2005.

Smith, the Big South Preseason Player of the Year, had a very productive junior campaign, but was not being mentioned on any postseason awards list. Nevertheless, the coaches and media of the Big South bestowed the preseason accolades based on a junior year where Smith was the only player in the nation during the 2008 season to attempt at least 200 three-point field goals and succeed on at least 50 percent of his field goal attempts (51.5) and 40 percent of his three-point field goal attempts (41.0).

He was one of five players in the nation to accomplish the same feat while attempting at least 100 three-point field goals. The other players were Mario Chalmers (Kansas), Lee Cummard (BYU), Malik Hairston (Oregon) and James Harden (Arizona State). Smith led the Flames in scoring last season (16.0) and is the second-leading returning scorer in the Big South Conference.

2008 was a solid campaign for Smith as he broke Liberty records for three-point field goals (84) and three-point field goal attempts (205), while setting the fifth-best season success rate from beyond the arc (41.0) He also became the 20th player in program history to reach the 1,000-point plateau. Other preseason accolades thus far for Smith have been being named a "Candidate to Consider" for the Wooden Award and was tabbed Big South Preseason Player of the Year by Blue Ribbon Basketball Yearbook.

"Anthony is a pro and maybe one of the best shooters in the nation," said McKay. "We saw the potential from day one that we stepped on campus. He continually works on his game and all the preseason honors are a testament to that extra effort he has put into his daily regimen. I am extremely happy for Anthony and fans are going to be treated by this team as a whole, but especially by Mr. Smith."

Turning to the upcoming season, there is a lot of uncertainty in regards to how the Big South Conference will finish up. Gardner-Webb, an affiliate member of the conference in football for a number of years, joins the conference as a full-fledged member.

The Bulldogs finished in the middle of the pack in the Atlantic Sun last season, but showed the nation what they are capable of, when they knocked off Kentucky in Rupp Arena. Gardner-Webb loses only one key member from that squad, All-American Thomas Sanders, who coincidently is the elder brother of Liberty's Jesse Sanders.

"Gardner-Webb is a dangerous addition to the conference," commented McKay. "Grayson Flittner runs their offense so well, which makes our two games with the Bulldogs solid additions to our schedule."

The coaches and media as a body agree with McKay, picking Gardner-Webb third in the preseason poll, as one mere point separated them from second-place Radford. Liberty was voted to finish fourth behind the Bulldogs. The Winthrop Eagles, winners of four straight Big South Championships, were voted to finish on top again, while Radford, who finished seventh in the conference last season, was picked to finish second. The Highlanders return all five starters from last season. High Point garnered the fifth spot, followed by Charleston Southern sixth, VMI seventh, Coastal Carolina eighth, UNC Asheville ninth and Presbyterian rounding out the poll.

The voting amongst the top five selections was one of the most balanced in years, conveying the ideas that road to the Big South Conference championship is for the taking by any of its conference members.

Guards
To say that Liberty is a guard-oriented team would be an understatement. The roster has 10 guards listed, headlined by Smith. The Big South Preseason Player of the Year has become Liberty's version of Dominique Wilkins, who was known as the "Human Highlight Film." Smith's aerial acrobatics earned him spots in the past on ESPN's Top 10 plays and ESPN's College GameNight Gym Gems.
"Anthony has been kind of lost in the mix in a very guard-rich conference the past couple years," reflected McKay. "He continues to improve daily and should show everyone why he was voted preseason player of the year by the media and coaches. He has a lot of talent and can score inside and outside. He really stepped up his rebounding last season and should reach the 500 career rebound mark by the end of the season."

Smith became the 20th player in Liberty history to tally 1,000-career points in 2008. Should the Plano, Texas native pull down 149 caroms this season (he had 161 last year), Smith would become the 35th player in Big South history to be a member of the 1,000-point/500 rebound club.

Also returning in the guard mix is Kyle Ohman. The former walk-on earned a scholarship this season and his numbers show why. Ohman connected on 63-of-153 of his three-point attempts for 41.2 percent, placing him No. 4 on Liberty's all-time season success rate list. Ohman tallied 63 field goals from beyond the three-point arc in 2008, one shy ofLiberty's career three-point field goal leader Larry Blair's best season of 64 in 2006.

Blair totaled 227 three-point field goals during his career, a record which could be in jeopardy this year, if Smith is as successful from beyond the arc as he was last season.

Ohman started seven of the final nine games last season, and is expected to be in the starting lineup this season.

"I love the way Kyle Ohman plays," said McKay. "We have never looked at him as a walk-on, and I think after last season, no one outside our program looks at him that way either. He tied a Vines Center record with seven three-point field goals and set a Big South Championship record in a phenomenal performance against VMI last season."

Also returning is sophomore Jeremy Anderson. The Bowling Green, Ky., native missed the first nine games last season after having surgery on his ankle the day before the season began. Anderson wasn't slowed too much and was named to the 2008 Big South All-Freshman squad. A deadly option from three-point range, look for Anderson to do more of the same off the bench during the upcoming year, much like did during his freshman campaign.

"Jeremy is the long-range shooter with ice in his veins," commented McKay. "He wants to be the guy who takes the big shot and that is a great quality to have in a shooter. In fact, I wouldn't even call Jeremy a shooter, he is a maker. Jeremy is one of those rare guys who every time he shoots you think it's going in. The VMI game last year, when he scored 20 points and made six three-point buckets in a key road conference game, is a great example of what Jeremy can do for our program. He is a great leader and a student of the game."

The guard corp continues with members of the heralded freshman class. Curry, like his older brother and All-American Davidson guard Stephen, was quietly recruited by many schools until McKay saw him play.

"I truly feel that Seth can play at the highest level," said McKay. "His skill level, his competitiveness and ability to make other's around him better, makes Seth special."

McKay and company went after Curry hard, and the Charlotte, N.C., was won over by the Liberty staff. Curry will see many minutes at both the point and shooting guard positions.
Floyd, a virtual unknown to the high school recruiting publications, comes to Liberty from Ocala, Fla. The big, physical guard already mirrors the size of Smith. He stands an inch taller than Smith at 6-6, but can shoot from outside and slash to the basket much like the lone Liberty senior.

"Brolin is a physical specimen who will be a threat inside and outside," said McKay. "He is going to create some matchup problems for teams." Look for Floyd to see significant time and will be in the starting mix.

Sanders is the floor general that Liberty has been searching for. The former Rice commitment is expected to set the table for the Flames' offense. The Sugar Land, Texas native is a tenacious defender and solid two-way basketball player. Standing only 6-3, Sanders will follow the mold of his older brother Thomas Sanders, an All-American at Garner-Webb a season ago. The elder Sanders pulled down over 10 rebounds a game, leading the nation for players under 6-5.

"Jesse is one of the greatest leaders I have coached or been around," commented McKay. "He has a chance to make an impact on this program that will last a long time."

Another exciting guard addition is Weaver, the former Brown commitment, another guard built in Smith's image. Look for his high-flying antics to excite the Vines Center faithful.

McKay is also excited to get Stephene on the court this season after the redshirt freshman was a NCAA non-qualifier a year ago.

"I think Johnny would have had a great chance at Big South Freshman Player of the Year last season," said McKay. "We found out at the last moment he would not qualify, but Johnny really bought into Liberty and stuck out the year and by going to school here, instead of transferring to a junior college where he could play immediately. His loyalty paid off as he made the Dean's List last spring and now, he will play a major part in our success this season."

Stephene is a big and physical combo guard with unselfish tendencies, and will be a viable part of the playing rotation.

Rounding out the guards is Tennessee Tech transfer David Minaya who will sit out this season due to the NCAA transfer rule. However, the Riverview, Fla., native will be a major asset in the Flames' game preparation. Also, a player who will contribute is sophomore walk-on James Spencer who appeared in 16 games a season ago.

Forwards
Tyler Baker returns as the one of two forwards on the roster after missing all, but 10 minutes of last season with an injury to his right foot. Baker, who appeared briefly against Coker in the home opener, applied for a medical hardship after missing what amounted to his second season with an injury. The NCAA won't rule on Baker's application until his five year window is up after the 2010 season.

Baker was an accurate sharpshooter from long range in his lone healthy season on Liberty Mountain. The Albuquerque, N.M., native at 6-9, has shown the ability to jump out on the wing and be very successful shooting from three-point range. As a redshirt freshman in 2007, Baker hit 40 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc.

"I have truly been able to appreciate how tough a player Tyler is after seeing him battle these injuries the past year," commented McKay. "I see Tyler being a viable option in our game plan this season. He can hurt an opponent in a lot of different ways, and I think he has the ability to do really good things for this program."

Austin Smith is the other forward on the squad and one of the seven fresh faces. The 6-9 native of Tucson, Ariz., comes to Liberty after helping his Ironwood Ridge High School squad to the 4A Arizona State Championship.

"By playing in the Arizona State Championship game, Austin is in good company," said McKay. "Guys like Richard Jefferson, Mike Bibby and Jerryd Bayless have all played in an Arizona State Championship game, which goes to show Austin comes from an area very rich in basketball talent.
Not only did Austin Smith play in the game, he was the MVP of the contest. Austin Smith can score, rebound and is not afraid to make the extra pass."

Centers
McMasters is the lone center listed on Liberty's roster. A center in title only, McMasters can jump out on the wing and play a Dirk Nowitzki style game. Standing at 6-11, the freshman from Chattanooga, Tenn., defensively disrupts a game with his knack for blocking shots, giving Liberty its first natural shot blocker since Peter Aluma, the all-time Big South leader.

"Carter has the ability to be a really special player for us at Liberty," said McKay. "He is very athletic for his height and he is going to create some very difficult matchups for opponents, especially when he jumps out on the wing."

The Schedule
Games against Clemson, Virginia and George Mason along with participation in the Findlay Toyota Las Vegas Classic highlight the 2008-09 Liberty men's basketball schedule.

McKay and his team will open up the 2008-09 season at home on Nov. 14 against NAIA member Montreat.

The Flames will then hit the road for two straight games, including opening conference play for the third straight year at UNC Asheville on Nov. 18, a contest featured on ESPN's College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon, before traveling up Highway 29 to Charlottesville to play at Virginia on Nov. 25. The contest at Virginia will be the Flames' eighth all-time meeting with the Cavaliers and the seventh straight season, Liberty will face a team from the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). Liberty has faced a current member from the ACC every season since the 1991-92 campaign, except for one. That lone year was the 2001-02 season.

McKay and company will return home over Thanksgiving weekend to host the Liberty Thanksgiving Classic. The Flames will square off against NCAA Division II squad Coker on Nov. 28, while Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) member William & Mary will play South Carolina State in the other opening tilt. The tournament will conclude on Nov. 29, as the winners of each game square off against each other, while the losers do the same.

Liberty then plays host to 2006 Final Four participant and CAA member George Mason on Dec. 1, before hosting its conference home opener against Gardner-Webb on Dec. 6.

"By having a program like George Mason come onto our home floor, a team that captured the hearts of college basketball fans everywhere during its Final Four run just over two years ago, we have helped our team by giving them a chance to experience some tough games, preparing us for a very difficult conference slate," remarked McKay.

The Flames will return to the road the following day, when they take on their second ACC team of the season in the Clemson Tigers on Dec. 7. The matchup with the Tigers will be the fourth all-time in program history, and first since the 2002-03 season. Clemson will make a return trip to the Vines Center next season, marking the first ACC school to play the Flames in Lynchburg. Virginia Tech played in the Vines Center prior to their ACC days.

"Adding Clemson, which was a late addition to the schedule, gives us two ACC teams and when you include George Mason and the teams we play in the Findlay Toyota Las Vegas Classic, we are really making a push to test our young guys early in hopes to prepare us for a regular-season run in the Big South," stated McKay.

NCAA Division II member Anderson comes to the Vines Center on Dec. 15 for the Flames final home game before the New Year.

McKay will take his squad away from the Vines Center for the next four games as part of the Findlay Toyota Las Vegas Classic. The first two contests will be played at home sites, before moving to the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. The Flames open tournament play up in Chicago at Big East member DePaul on Dec. 17. With the exception of three meetings this decade with Seton Hall, this contest will be the first different Big East opponent the Flames have faced since 2000. Liberty most recently faced Seton Hall at the BYU Holiday Classic in December 2006.

Liberty continues play in the Findlay Toyota Las Vegas Classic on Dec. 19 at St. Louis against Rick Majerus' Billikens squad. The game will be played in the brand-new 10,600-seat Chaifetz Arena.
The Flames then travel to Las Vegas for two games at the Orleans Arena. On Dec. 22 Liberty will face Southern, and based on the outcome of that game, will face either Northern Colorado or USC Upstate on Dec. 23.

After Christmas, Liberty returns to the Vines Center to host NAIA member Cincinnati Christian on Dec. 28.

The Flames will resume Big South Conference play on Jan. 3 when they travel to Rock Hill, S.C., to face four-time defending Big South champions, Winthrop. The road trip continues as the Flames make their first trip to Clinton, S.C., since the 1978-79 season to face new conference foe Presbyterian.

Charleston Southern visits the Vines Center on Jan. 10, followed by Coastal Carolina on Jan. 12. Liberty stays in the Commonwealth, traveling through the Blue Ridge Mountains to Lexington to face the Keydets of VMI on Jan. 17. The Flames then head down to High Point on Jan. 20, before returning home for three games.

Radford comes to Lynchburg on Jan. 24, followed by High Point on Jan. 27 and UNC Asheville on Jan. 31.

Liberty travels to Gardner-Webb on Feb. 4, before returning home to host Winthrop on Feb. 7 and Presbyterian on Feb. 9.

The Flames then make the beach tour, traveling to Charleston Southern on Feb. 14, followed by a game at Coastal Carolina on Feb. 16.

VMI comes to the Vines Center for "Senior Night" on Feb. 24, and the regular season concludes on Feb. 28 at Radford.

The Big South Men's Basketball Championship begins with the quarterfinals on March 3 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 on March 5. ESPN2 will broadcast the championship game on March 7 at the home of the highest remaining seed. The NCAA Tournament starts March 19-22, with the first two rounds being played at various locations across the country.

"Having coached in the Pac 10 before, I know the challenges of playing an 18-game conference schedule," said McKay. "I think playing the likes of traditional powers like DePaul, St. Louis and Virginia will be stiff road tests that will prepare us for those obstacles of a long and grinding conference schedule."

Young and the Restless
Seven new faces, seven freshmen, all coming to a sleepy city nestled at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Emulating Hollywood's glamorized gunmen who heroically defended a Mexican village, these youngsters come to Lynchburg from all reaches of this great country for a common goal.

That goal is to not only annually vie for the Big South Championship, but make noise in the NCAA Tournament as well. While the 2008-09 season will be a young one for the Flames, it is never too early to start on that four-year goal the freshman class owns.

With the conference's preseason player of the year in tow and a group of stellar returnees in place, the Flames will make a serious push for a Big South Championship. Along the way the honored freshmen class might not receive the magnificent label yet like their Hollywood counterparts, but they will not only show the nation why they are special, but also why Liberty is a special university.