Liberty men’s basketball coach Ritchie McKay doesn’t remember exactly what time in the wee hours Monday morning he finally decided to close his laptop and get a few hours of sleep.
There was not a wasted minute after the conclusion of the Selection Show watch party at the Vines Center until he finally said, ‘Enough is enough,’ and stopped immersing himself in game film of Mississippi State. He studied every intricacy, noted each tendency and chronicled the strengths and weaknesses of the Bulldogs.
McKay wanted to ensure anything Mississippi State threw at Liberty in Friday’s first round of the NCAA Tournament was covered during the practices in Lynchburg before the team flies to San Jose, California.
“They’re athletic as all get-out,” McKay said before Monday’s late afternoon practice. “When you can rotate really three, four bigs in at the same time and all can score and defend and have just incredible length that poses some challenges for us. We don’t have that same size and weight.
“But then they have a really good guard line. I think [Quinndary] Weatherspoon will be one of the top five scorers in school history. Lamont Peters can really play, gets downhill, can shoot the ball from 3, creates a lot of opportunities for others. I think [Tyson] Carter’s insertion into the lineup has really stabilized their group, and he’s a complete player but can also really, really shoot it.
“They cause a lot of problems. I think for our group, hopefully we’ll keep pounding the rock, if you will, and see if we can’t be decent defensively and knock in a shot or two.”
The Flames (28-6) played a pair of Southeastern Conference teams during the regular season — Vanderbilt, with a healthy Darius Garland, and Alabama — and lost both games by nine points.
“Those teams, we didn’t play at our pace; we played their game and didn’t take great shots, either,” Liberty junior point guard Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz said of playing the two SEC programs. “This is a great opportunity for us to don’t do that again and do what we do every day.”
The Bulldogs (23-10) finished tied for sixth in the SEC regular-season standings and lost to Tennessee in the conference tournament quarterfinals.
When Mississippi State is successful, its production begins with Peters at point guard and Weatherspoon on the wing.
Weatherspoon averages 18.2 points, 2.8 assists and 1.7 steals while also shooting better than 56 percent from inside the 3-point line.
“He can score in a lot of different ways — a really good shooter, get to the rim, finish at the rim, doesn’t force a lot of things and lets the game come to him,” Liberty senior guard Lovell Cabbil said of Weatherspoon. “He’s a really talented player. It’s going to take all five guys in our defensive scheme to slow him down. We’re just going to try to do a good job of just making it as hard as possible for him.”
Weatherspoon’s production has been aided by the emergence of Tyson Carter on the opposite side of the court. Carter has started the past 10 games since Nick Weatherspoon (Quinndary’s younger brother) went down with an injury and is third on the team in scoring at 10.5 points per outing.
Peters, though, is the one who gets the Bulldogs’ offense into motion. He is second in scoring (11.7) and is tops on the team with 171 assists and 58 steals.
He and Quinndary Weatherspoon, a first team all-SEC selection, are the two main reasons why the Bulldogs are 19th in the nation, according to KenPom, in recording steals on 11.7 percent of their opponents’ possessions.
“They will try to speed us up on offense and deny every catch,” Pacheco-Ortiz said. “I think if we don’t turn the ball over and we play our game and play our pace, we will be great in that game. We have to take care of the ball and make the right decisions.”
Mississippi State features three post players in its rotation who possess size Liberty does not have in Reggie Perry (6-10, 245), Aric Holman (6-10, 225) and Abdul Ado (6-11, 255).
The Flames’ two main post players are Scottie James (6-8, 235) and Myo Baxter-Bell (6-5, 255).
Perry and Holman average nearly 10 points per game, while Ado leads the team with 54 blocks.
Those three have also pulled down a combined 212 of the Bulldogs’ 385 offensive rebounds this season. The Flames rank 205th out of 353 Division I teams this season in defensive rebounds per game (24.9).
“I think that their bigs … are very athletic and they [will] really challenge us on the glass, they’re going to really crash hard,” Liberty redshirt junior forward Caleb Homesley said, “but everything goes through their guards. It will start with them. I think that the bigs benefit off of their guards, their drives and different things, but I think that if we have our post trap and it’s effective, we’ll be fine.”
The key for Liberty on Friday night is keeping Cabbil and fellow guard Elijah Cuffee out of foul trouble. The two are considered the Flames’ top perimeter defenders and have excelled at containing strong guards when they are able to stay on the floor.
“It will be really important early just to play without using our hands and not foul so their guards don’t get confident early in the game that they can draw fouls on us,” Cabbil said. “Especially for me and Cuf on the perimeter, their team runs a lot off of Peters and Weatherspoon and those guys, so if me and Cuf can do a good job of staying out of foul trouble and staying in the game, I think we can make it tough for them.”