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Hoops Preview: Liberty comes to town to slow Mizzou’s momentum

Mizzou will put its undefeated record up against the Flames, who already have two SEC pelts this season.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Liberty Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Is it strange to anyone else that Liberty is currently one of the most successful mid-major athletics departments in Division I revenue sports?

Apart from all the other stuff happening at the Lynchburg, Va., private school — which of course, is all a bit off-topic and off-putting — it just feels strange to think of Liberty as a threat. But a threat they are at the moment. The 9-1 football Flames are currently ranked No. 22 in the Associated Press poll, and are about to get their coach Hugh Freeze (yeah, that guy) a promotion to a bigger school. Meanwhile, the hoops program has won 59 games in its past two seasons and was one of the trademark 5-12 upsets in the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

Ritchie McKay is in his eighth total season at Liberty and sixth since returning from a stint as Tony Bennett’s Associate Head Coach at Virginia. During his time in Lynchburg, McKay has transformed Liberty into an odd Virginia offspring, one that embraces Bennett’s emphasis on a lack of pace without a similar insistence on stifling defense. Liberty probably won’t ever rank among the country’s best teams in terms of KenPom — playing in the Atlantic Sun will do that to you — but McKay reached a new zenith at Liberty over the past two years, winning both the regular season and conference tournament last season. Unfortunately for the Flames, they didn’t get much of a chance to replicate their 2019 success because... well, you know.

Coming into 2020-2021, the Flames are once again feisty, if a bit light on experience. Two of the KenPom All-ASUN players were on the 2019-2020 squad, both of whom graduated, along with some other senior contributors. McKay returns mostly a full squad of old faces and new recruits, but will have to count on development to replace the lost production.

The Scout

The Starters

Position Missouri (3-0) Liberty (4-2)
Position Missouri (3-0) Liberty (4-2)
PG Xavier Pinson (Jr., 6'2", 170) Chris Parker (Sr., 6'1")
CG Dru Smith (Rs. Sr., 6'3", 203) Darius McGhee (Jr., 5'9")
WING Mark Smith (Sr., 6'5", 220) Elijah Cufee (Sr., 6'4", 185)
PF Kobe Brown (So., 6'7", 240) Kyle Rode (So., 6'7")
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (Sr., 6'10", 260) Micaiah Abii (Fr. , 6'7")

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

Like many teams the Tigers will play this season, the Flames look like they’re rebuilding compared to Missouri.

McKay’s program graduated its four top contributors from last season and brought in point guard Chris Parker from Division II Henderson State to fill some of the minutes void. Think of Parker like a Drew Buggs implant — he’s not at Liberty to score, but to distribute. So far the transition has been kind to Parker, who has an offensive rating of 116.4 playing in 80 percent of available minutes.

Two other players get a majority of the playing time, and both are returning contributors. Junior Darius McGhee will catch heads as one of the shorter players in Division I basketball at 5’9”, but McGhee plays much larger than his stature. McGhee currently boasts a 17.4 defensive rebounding rate (which would rank third on the Tigers roster) and is a pesky defender with big athleticism. He’s almost strictly a three point shooter, averaging 8+ attempts per game, and he shot 38 percent in his sophomore year. Senior Elijah Cuffee doesn’t get as much usage in his minutes, but ranks as the team’s deadliest threat from the outside, shooting nearly 48 percent from three. It would behoove the Tigers to have someone spy Cuffee at all times, as he’s just a specialist on the offensive end — 68 percent of his field goal attempts come from deep.

In the front court, the Flames rotate a number of bodies with varying skill sets. Keegan McDowell has big wing size and shoots almost exclusively from three-point range, where he’s a 41 percent shooter on the young season. Sophomore Kyle Rode isn’t afraid to heave threes either — they make up 70 percent of his field goal attempts — but is most effective as a rebounder, where he boasts a respectable 8.6 percent offensive rebounding rate. Blake Preston checks in as the team’s tallest player (6’9”), and also rates as its best threat inside and on the glass. He can be exploited, however, by a more physical big who forces him into foul trouble. The same can said of Micaiah Abii, the 6’7” freshman. Abii might be a dark horse threat to torch Missouri if they’re not careful, though. The frosh currently boasts a 70.6 true shooting percentage, as he’s shooting above 53 percent from two and three-point range.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense vs. Liberty Defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Missouri 107.9 (38) 16.2 (103) 56.1 (32) 16.4 (61) 31.6 (87) 31.5 (159) 32.9 (137) 61 (16) 75.4 (54) 11.4 (231) 7.5 (78)
Liberty 97.5 (130) 17.2 (195) 50.8 (165) 18.8 (167) 27.8 (145) 32.8 (158) 32.1 (145) 51.9 (186) 70.1 (160) 6.4 (212)
NCAA Basketball: Oral Roberts at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Take what they give you (and keep pushing the pace!)

Despite Missouri’s newfound insistence on pushing the pace, they’ve faced some glacial teams in the past week. Liberty should continue that trend, as they play at an adjusted tempo of 66.3 possessions per game. The Flames are consistently one of the slowest teams in Division I, and Missouri will be the fastest team they’ve played this season, with the notable exception of... South Carolina. Yes, you’re remembering correctly. The Flames beat the Gamecocks 78-62 when the two matched up a few weeks ago. In that game, The Flames forced the game to a crawl at 65 total possessions. The Gamecocks shot a total of 39 percent from the floor and were run out of the gym.

Liberty has yet to play in a game above 67 possessions this season. They don’t have any glaring holes on defense, but are rather middle-of-the-pack in every statistical category. If Missouri can hit shots at an average clip, win some battles on the offensive boards, and exploit their size advantage, they should be fine. If they can get Liberty out of its comfort zone by forcing a track meet, even better.

When Liberty has the ball...

Liberty Offense vs. Missouri Defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Liberty 102 (121) 19.9 (288) 58.9 (16) 17.2 (83) 19 (268) 25.9 (235) 37.4 (54) 63 (9) 67.9 (182) 8.3 (121) 8.3 (124)
Missouri 91.1 (44) 17 (181) 41.8 (25) 16.4 (237) 31.2 (204) 26.2 (66) 25.9 (38) 43.9 (56) 74.5 (232) 5.3 (236) 9.4 (132)
NCAA Basketball: Hall of Fame Classic Championship Game Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Can Missouri contain the jump shooters?

I mentioned above that Liberty is one of the slowest teams in Division I basketball. So how have they turned into a feisty mid-major contender these past few years? Efficiency. In Ritchie McKay’s 5+ years at the helm, the Flames have never ranked below 95th in effective field goal percentage. Since 2019, they’ve consistently ranked as a top 20 unit in terms of efficiency. They don’t rebound particularly well and they’re prone to being turned over and blocked. But if they get a shot off, there’s a good chance it’s going in.

In their six games this season, that efficiency has gone full-on launch mode, as the Flames ranked first in the country in three-pointers per field goals attempted. Nearly 60 percent — three-fifths!!!! — of their shots come from deep, and the Flames are hitting at a 37.4 clip. They’re not one-dimensional either, ranking ninth in the country in two-point field goal percentage at 63. If the Tigers want to keep those numbers down, they’ll need to play sound positional defense for long periods of time. They’ve been good at it so far — no team has shot above 33 percent from three or 51 percent from two against the Tigers all season.

KenPom predicts...

Missouri 72, Liberty 61 | Last season, Missouri dropped a home game to Charleston Southern, a team that finished sub-300 in the final KenPom rankings. It was a loss that cratered any hopes that the Tigers were ready to be an upper-tier SEC team. A loss to Liberty wouldn’t be as bad as that, but it might be just as deflating after Missouri’s 3-0 start.

We’ll continue to lean on this mantra, which you’ll hear often throughout our basketball coverage: If Missouri is an NCAA tournament team, this is a game you win. Liberty has its strengths, but is an overall pretty mediocre team. They’ll fight hard, and they may even push the Tigers more than you’d expect of a sub-100 KP team. But Missouri just finished off a week in which it toppled two good teams away from home. Handling Liberty back in Mizzou Arena should just be another day taking care of business.