The Liberty men’s basketball season doesn’t tip off for another three months, but coach Ritchie McKay is already prepared to be peppered with the same question leading into the opener against Radford.
“How do you replace a Lovell Cabbil? I don’t think you do,” McKay said recently during the team’s summer workouts. “It’s a falsity that you can take a team, especially a team people liked or appreciated that won however many games, and just replace the players that are leaving with new players or existing players to play the same role. Not possible. I’m old enough in this to not even try to do that. Every team is different and every player has a different set of skills that we deem as valuable.”
Cabbil was an integral piece to the Flames’ 29-win season and NCAA Tournament second-round appearance, and his graduation left a void in leadership, defensive stopper and offensive playmaker on the team.
McKay’s group returns a go-to scorer in Caleb Homesley, consistent post presences in Scottie James and Myo Baxter-Bell, and a steady, reliable point guard in Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz. A pair of rising juniors — Elijah Cuffee and Keegan McDowell — have used the summer to emerge in the rotation as pieces who can help fill Cabbil’s void.
“I think it’s probably too soon to know” who will replace Cabbil, Cuffee said. “For us, I think this year will probably be more of a team; not saying that it wasn’t last year, but we knew we could always depend on Lovell being that one guy.
“This year I think we’ll need more of a team base, everybody just coming together and wanting to get that one stop every possession.”
Cuffee occasionally drew the assignment of guarding the opposing team’s best player last season and proved he has the skill to be a lockdown defender. His 6-foot-4, 185-pound frame allows him to be physical with bigger guards while also utilizing lateral quickness to stay with the smaller, faster ball handlers.
The Poca, West Virginia, native scored 7.6 points per game and shot 56 of 133 from 3-point range as a sophomore, and those are numbers he wants to improve on as a junior to become more of an offensive threat.
“Elijah Cuffee helped us a ton last year; I don’t see that changing,” McKay said. “The thing that you’ll notice or you’ll appreciate the most is how much more confident he’s become because of how much he’s invested in his game. He’s a really good player and an even better person.”
Cabbil averaged 11.7 points, shot 131 of 266 from the field and led the team with 97 assists.
“I definitely want to be more consistent offensively and producing more for the team, whether that be scoring or assisting. Lovell did both,” he said. “Definitely be more consistent this year, that’s a big goal for me.”
Cuffee is spending the end of his summer working with basketball camps in China and Sudan, and McDowell’s summer began with a trip home to Cincinnati, Ohio, before going to Colorado State University to intern at the Ultimate Training Camp from May 24 through 30.
The time away allowed him to “push the reset button” and refocus heading into the summer workouts. He took a class during the first weeks of summer that lasted about three hours a day, then solely focused on getting into the gym and working on his craft.
“Keegan’s been cooking this summer,” Cuffee said. “He’s been doing a really good job on both ends of the court being able to guard and being able to get off on the offensive end. He’s been doing his thing.”
McDowell’s minutes were limited down the stretch last season with Keenan Gumbs getting most of the minutes as the primary wing player off the bench. The 6-foot-6 McDowell is one of the team’s best perimeter shooters and has developed more on the defensive end to fit into the packline defense.
He took 116 shots as a freshman, but only attempted 67 last season.
“I think, honestly, my first two years just being so up and down shooting-wise and then playing-wise also, it’s good to just have those years under your belt and kind of be able to learn from mistakes, failures, but then also like the good things and what worked,” he said. “I think it will be good to come into this year prepared and just try to help the team out.”
The Flames return a strong nucleus from last season’s team and also added three talented freshmen who are expected to immediately battle for playing time.
“Our program’s gotten to the point where the competition for minutes are hard. It will be the hardest job I have this year to manage the 200 minutes appropriately to give us a chance to win the game and keep a really competitive group on the same page and connected,” McKay said.
“Keegan represents that. His teamship and buy-in, you would have never noticed he was frustrated unless you really knew him. … And I say this about the guys at Virginia: what made their program great is guys waited for their opportunity to play and play a higher role. I think that’s important for any program, and my hope is Keegan is rewarded for his persistence. He’s a fabulous kid and had a really good summer.”
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.