Parks Smith of Mid-Major Madness is a demi-God. Yes, I just blasphemed in an article about Liberty. No, I do not care.
Liberty turned around a disappointing 2012-13 campaign with a miracle run to the Big South title and a berth in the Big Dance. How does your fan base feel about last year's results?
Liberty had a lot of moving pieces last year with a ton of JUCO transfers inserted into their rotation. The Flames didn't even win a Division I game until New Years Eve. After just going 6-10 in Big South play, the Flames caught fire in Myrtle Beach for the Big South Tournament. JC Sanders started to take better care of the basketball, Davon Marshall became a premier threat from beyond that arch, and their big man rotation really became a dominant force. Of course the tourney run was bolstered by a bit of luck, like beating High Point by 1 when HPU was without their best player John Brown, but the Flames really battled. Despite the championship, there seemed to be mixed emotions from the Flames faithful. Of course fans were happy to be going to the "Big Dance", but many were tired of the Dale Layer era and last season he clearly went all-in with so many JUCO additions. How your team deals with adversity is totally different than how your team deals with success and it'll be interesting to see how Liberty responds.
What's the biggest piece you've lost since last season?
Basically, the only key member gone from last year's title run is Tavares Speaks. Speaks started at the three and was basically the Flames only player with any sort of mid-range game. He hit a bunch of key shots in the tournament last year and had 18 points against Charleston Southern in the championship game. Although he was a workhorse for Dale Layer last year, averaging over 31 minutes per game, Flames fans are feeling the loss as much because senior Antwan Burrus comes back from a a year sitting out as a medical redshirt. Burrus' game doesn't match up with Speaks, but he was an 11 points, 6 rebounds per game guy two years ago. It'll be interesting to see how Burrus' game meshes with Liberty's frontcourt and if the Flames will suffer without having Speaks jump shot this year.
Who is the player who needs to step up the most this year?
This may sound a bit odd, but I think it has to be John Caleb Sanders. Sanders was picked on the Second Team All-Big South this preseason and is a guy who averaged nearly 14 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists a year ago. Sanders is a guy, at times, who can play the game with reckless abandon. Something clicked late in the year last season where he realized he didn't have do everything by himself with his slasher mentality. He started feeding the ball to Speaks and Davon Marshall and it really paid off for Liberty. Over the last nine games of the year, Marshall really became a premier three point threat and averaged over 18 points per game. I think defenses are now going to zero in Marshall, which limits Sanders distribution to shooters to the streaky at best Tomasz Gielo. I think there is a real chance the Sanders reverts back to his old ways and playing with reckless abandon, for that reason I think he has to step up his senior year in Lynchburg.
Who is the player UVa fans ought to look out for the most?
I don't think it's a single player but rather Liberty's frontcourt of Joel Vander Pol, Andrew Smith, JR Coronado, Sommy Ogukwe, and the aforementioned Gielo. None of them are individual stars but Dale Layer really figured out a big man rotation late last year that really was the reason for Liberty's postseason success. Coronado is a rebound machine and a defensive beast, but has zero offensive game. Vander Pol and Smith are two tenacious players who play with tremendous passion and can really hit the boards hard. None of these guys are going to wow you, but they are going to keep coming after you for forty minutes of basketball.
What's your outlook for the season? What's a success, what's a failure, and what's something you can live with?
I think the goal for Liberty has to be a top two finish in the Big South's North Division and a bye in the first round of the Big South Tournament. Their frontcourt should provide an advantage over a lot of Big South teams, but lets not forget that this was a 15-21 team a year ago. It's a hard team to judge, but I have to think .500 is a key goal. It seems to me that some fans and even the players on Twitter think they deserve more respect but this is also a team that's 15-19 the last two years in the Big South and a team that really struggled at time last season. So in short, I think a winning season and a first round bye are the primary goals for the Flames this year.