The Liberty men’s basketball coaches and veterans players wrapped up sharing their thoughts about Friday’s opening practice when Ritchie McKay passed the figurative baton to the program’s director of performance, Henry Barrera.
Barrera didn’t speak for very long, but his words were powerful in his delivery: The competitive drive and deliberate hustle during the entire duration of the initial practice set the bar for each remaining practice leading into the Nov. 8 opener against Radford. Nothing less than what the coaches, players and support staff just witnessed will be acceptable for a program coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance.
“The main word is competitiveness,” junior guard Elijah Cuffee said. “Coach Hen hit it on the head. I can’t get off of that word [competitiveness] right now. I think that’s the main thing.”
The first practice featured all the intangibles of what McKay and his staff want to see out of his team — unselfishness on the offensive end, hustle and tenacity on defense, and the willingness to sacrifice one’s body to change momentum.
“We’ve done a little bit in the preseason and our guys have really owned that pursuit of improvement,” McKay said. “ … It’s very competitive out there.”
McKay, entering his fifth season at the helm, has cultivated a roster filled to the brim with talent. Eight players who contributed, including four starters, return from last season’s 29-win campaign, and the lineup includes three talented true freshmen looking to make an immediate impact along with two redshirt freshmen who grew significantly during their year of development.
“We have a full roster this year,” redshirt senior forward Myo Baxter-Bell said. “Everybody’s in and out. We’ve got four or five [starters] that’s coming back, so practices are really competitive and we know what to expect. That’s going to help us out a lot.”
McKay’s squads have always featured strong guard play, but the added depth on the wings and in the post was the most obvious during the opening practice.
Post players Baxter-Bell and Scottie James had company with Shiloh Robinson and Blake Preston, the latter displaying a confidence in his play that was missing last season when he arrived on campus.
The Flames routinely went with one post player, Caleb Homesley and three guards during last season’s run to the NCAA Tournament. Now, McKay has the ability to go with a bigger lineup, if needed.
“Blake is a big post presence for us right now,” Homesley said. “He’s getting deep seals in practice; he’s making Scottie, Myo, myself, Shiloh and Kyle Rode a lot better.”
Homesley and Rode both share similar skill sets that will benefit the Flames.
Homesley, a redshirt senior, can handle point guard responsibilities while also playing as a stretch power forward, while Rode has the natural skills to play anywhere from shooting guard to a stretch forward.
That type of versatility will help McKay mix and match his lineups throughout the season, especially when he wants to get fresh faces opportunities.
“It’s just a hard lineup to crack right now,” he said.
“ … I think if your program is consistent enough and it’s growing and it’s a winning program, I think guys will have opportunities.”
Homesley, Rode, Cuffee, Keegan McDowell and Marten Maide showcased what they can do on the wing during the opening practice. All three are strong shooters and have displayed the necessary growth on the defensive end to defend guards and forwards.
“I think the competitive drive that we have, I think that everyone on the team wants to play hard. I think that’s something we didn’t have in the past,” Homesley said. “I think that one thing I noticed with this group is our effort, but also our execution. I think that we’re really fighting on playing hard, but our execution piece hadn’t been there in the past, but it’s here now.”
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.