The Liberty men’s basketball team will open the season against an in-state rival, play two road games at Power 5 conference programs and compete in two early season tournaments as part of its nonconference schedule for the 2019-20 season.
The Flames return six of the eight players who saw substantial playing time last season on a team that won the ASUN Conference tournament title and won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time in program history.
“I was excited about the schedule we were able to put together,” Liberty coach Ritchie McKay said Thursday. “It was a little more challenging this year. Everyone that is in the profession usually has a bit of an aversion to scheduling a team or program that’s got the amount of points and rebounding statistics we have returning. It made it a little more difficult to navigate. That being said, I think we’ve got a ton of neutral games that will really test our group.”
The nonconference schedule includes previously announced tournaments — The Island of the Bahamas Showcase and the Battle for the Capital — in addition to Power 5 road games at Vanderbilt on Dec. 14 and LSU on Dec. 29.
It is the second season in a row Liberty closes the nonconference slate at a Power 5 conference program. The Flames upset UCLA last season.
LSU won the SEC regular-season title, advanced to the Sweet 16 and finished with a 28-7 record last season.
Liberty opens the season at home Nov. 8 against Radford, the teams’ first meeting since the 2018 Big South Conference tournament championship game. The Highlanders went 22-11 and fell to Gardner-Webb in the Big South tournament title game.
“We get to play against a really well-coached team that has a returning backcourt that we’re very familiar with,” McKay said. “I do think that rivalry’s a natural, and we go back to Radford the following year. I think our fans, if you remember back to the Big South championship in our last season in the conference, that was a great atmosphere. Hopefully we can recreate that.”
The Flames host Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference foes Maryland Eastern Shore and South Carolina State on Nov. 10 and 12, respectively, and open the three-day tournament in the Bahamas against Morgan State.
Those three MEAC teams were among the worst in the conference last season by finishing in a tie for eighth (UMES and S.C. State) and 10th (Morgan State).
The tournament in the Bahamas begins Nov. 22, and the field includes George Washington, Evansville, East Carolina, Milwaukee, Rice and UMKC.
“We’ll play in any tournament that will afford us a chance to play up, if you will. When we heard about the teams that were going to be in there, those are really good names,” McKay said. “It’s hard to get home-and-homes with mid-major teams, at least it’s been hard for us.”
The Flames’ road schedule begins Nov. 16 at East Carolina, and they return home for a Nov. 19 matchup against Navy. Liberty won at Navy last season, 76-58.
Kentucky Christian and Trinity Baptist, the only non-Division I teams on the schedule, visit the Vines Center on Nov. 29 and Dec. 2 to close the home portion of the Flames’ nonconference slate.
The Flames are on the road for the remainder of December with a matchup against Grand Canyon in the Jerry Colangelo Classic at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix on Dec. 8, followed by the matchup at Vanderbilt.
Liberty fell to the Commodores, 79-70, last season.
Liberty is one of four teams in the Battle for the Capital at the St. Elizabeth’s East Entertainment and Sports Arena, the home of the Washington Wizards’ G-League team and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics.
The Flames open that tournament against Towson on Dec. 20 and play either Tulane or Akron the next day.
“Instead of going to play as many buys as we did last year — guaranteed games where people paid for us to come there — we went the neutral route,” McKay said.
“We thought [the Battle for the Capital] would be good for us, and it’s drivable. Having left the Big South, there’s not many games that we’re afforded the opportunity to play that are a bus trip. We decided to jump on that one.”
The ASUN has already announced its schedule for the upcoming season. Liberty opens and closes the conference slate on the road for the second straight season, playing at Florida Gulf Coast on Jan. 2 and facing Lipscomb at Allen Arena on March 1.
The home conference schedule features three straight home games between Jan. 9 and 18 against North Alabama, Jacksonville and Lipscomb, and three more consecutive home games in February versus NJIT, North Florida and Stetson.
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.