SAN JOSE, Calif. — The Liberty men’s basketball team is entering uncharted waters in this season’s NCAA Tournament. The Flames are a No. 12 seed for the first time in program history — they were a No. 16 seed in their previous three trips — and have an opportunity to set a program record for victories in a season if it defeats fifth-seeded Mississippi State at 7:27 p.m. Friday at the SAP Center.
The program’s fourth appearance in the Big Dance comes in Ritchie McKay’s fourth season back at the helm. He was rehired soon after the conclusion of the 2014-15 season, a campaign in which the Flames recorded at least 20 losses for the third straight season and failed to win 10 games for the first time since the 2005-06 season.
This NCAA Tournament appearance showcases the substantial leaps, not just steps forward, the program has taken since McKay returned to Lynchburg following six seasons as an associate head coach under Tony Bennett at the University of Virginia.
McKay has built this program differently than he did in his first stop at Liberty, a two-year run that ended in 2009, and his previous stops spanning 11 seasons at Portland State, Colorado State, Oregon State and New Mexico.
Now, in his second stint at LU, McKay’s process of building the Flames’ program is rooted in what he learned from Bennett during his six seasons at UVa.
As an assistant for the Cavaliers, McKay took a step back from the helter-skelter schedule of being a head coach. He refocused on the essential elements of being a coach, something he couldn’t do when jumping from one head coaching job to another.
McKay said his nature was to prove himself through victories on the court. When the wins didn’t occur, he sometimes felt empty. Becoming an assistant changed that mindset.
“I got mind space back. I think sometimes when you’re a head coach, given the path that I took to get there and the circumstances that happened in my family and my individual life, when you operate out of a place of woundedness, you’ll fill that wound with whatever you can,” McKay said. “For me it was performance, it was gaining identity with success and affirmation in that. It’s a hard road to hoe because it’s very unfulfilling and unsustainable.”
“I think it was more rooted in trying to find some kind of fulfillment or sustainability in something that the world has to offer,” he said. “I learned that’s not possible.”
Under Bennett, McKay learned the importance of building a program the right way, investing in players rather than focusing only on wins.
“I got a chance just to serve Tony in a way that I felt like my role was important, even though it was very invisible and he probably didn’t need it,” McKay said. “But I also got to watch him do it, and that was just like a classroom.”
The more the 53-year-old McKay watched Bennett, the more he understood traditional measures of success — win-loss record, conference championships, NCAA Tournament appearances — don’t tell the whole story.
Bennett in 10 seasons has turned UVa back into a perennial national title contender, and McKay had a front-row seat for six of those campaigns.
“Hopefully, he helped our program. Hopefully, he gained some things,” Bennett said of McKay as he talked to reporters Thursday in Columbia, South Carolina, where the Cavaliers play Friday. “But he’s taken that job, and he’s got very good players. They play a sound system. They’re defending well. He’s got them doing good stuff offensively.”
At Liberty, McKay has focused on cultivating strong relationships among players and coaches, and has established a team-first mentality. Those two factors, he said, are the foundation for sustained success in the program.
Initially, the foundation didn’t appear to be on solid footing. The Flames lost their first 13 games against Division I competition during the 2015-16 season.
But he wasn’t as concerned about the losses as he was about building a culture that could grow and learn through the setbacks.
McKay often quotes Tony Bennett’s father, Dick, “You’ve got to get a group of guys you can lose with first before you win,” in how he recruited players who could help buy into what McKay wanted to see at Liberty.
He had players like Ryan Kemrite, Lovell Cabbil and Caleb Homesley grow during those trying times. They were three of the players on that first roster who kept the locker room intact and positive as the vision for the program slowly took shape.
The Flames finished fifth in the Big South Conference standings that season and were quickly eliminated in the conference tournament by UNC Asheville.
But the seeds were planted. Liberty won 21 and 22 times in the following two seasons with berths in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, and there was talk of the Flames being serious contenders in their inaugural season in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
Liberty backed up the talk this year with 25 regular-season victories and three more triumphs in the A-Sun tournament, including a thrilling victory at Lipscomb to secure an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.