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Non-Conference Preview: L*berty presents a unique early challenge

It’s not often a power conference team travels to Lynchburg to take on the Flames, but Missouri has chosen to do just that.

NCAA Basketball: Liberty at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

You’ll never convince me this is a good decision. Of all the good mid-major schools who can benefit from a home court visit from a Power Conference school... Liberty is the very last school which deserves that visit. But we’ve been over this, and I will try not to talk about it anymore. Instead, I’ll do my best to make this about the team.

Two for ones are somewhat common for a Power Conference schools finding higher mid-major schools. In fact, there was a spirited conversation about SLU’s declining a 2-for-1 which Missouri offered last year. Liberty plays in the Atlantic Sun Conference, which might barely qualify for a Mid-major conference, with the likes of Lipscomb, Florida Gulf Coast, and North Florida. Yet here’s Missouri making their first, and quite likely last, visit to play Liberty in Lynchburg, Virginia.

The rest of the Non-con (complete with links to the post):

NCAA Basketball: Liberty at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Head Coach | Ritchie McKay | Ninth Season

McKay has to be one of the more well known low to mid-major coaches in the country these days. In his second stint as the head coach at Liberty — McKay took a brief hiatus to reconnect with his friend and mentor, Tony Bennett at Virginia — he’s managed to build and sustain the program at a level which has kept it at the top of the ASUN for each season they’ve been apart, which is only the last three.

Three straight NCAA tournament appearances have turned Liberty from a middling Big South program into a top tier A-SUN program. The ASUN hasn’t proven to be as good of a league on an annual basis as the Big South, so dropping down a little has actually helped Liberty rise and turn them into a top 100 program each of the last three seasons if you’re going by KenPom.

Much of that is owed to McKay, who takes Bennett’s precision coaching and methodical approach to pack-line defense and blocker-mover offense, which searches for the best shot... after LOTS of seconds have ticked off the shot clock.

So it’s basketball as poetry in slow motion.

Series History | Missouri leads 2-0

There isn’t a deep history between these two programs. Liberty has been a program since 1972, they joined Division 1 for the 1988-89 season, and made a trip to Columbia for a non-conference matchup in 1994. If you were around back then, the 94-95 season was a fairly memorable one for the Tigers. It was the season after the undefeated Big 8 run, and a season which left Missouri forever ingrained in the minds (and eyes) of NCAA Tournament fans when they lost to UCLA in the second round on a buzzer beater. Mizzou beat Liberty to go 6-1 on the season, with their only loss being to the defending National Champion Arkansas Razorbacks (who also would lose to UCLA in the NCAA Tournament that year).

The game against Liberty was forgettable enough, and Mizzou won by 11. I couldn’t find a box score so if you’re reading this and recall anything about the game feel free to hop in the comments and fill us in.

The second game should be a little more memorable, since it was just last year. Here are the summaries:

But essentially, Mizzou fell behind, falling victim to Liberty’s ridiculously slow pace, but clamped down on defense and doused the Flames with an early 2nd half run. Once they got in the lead and ahead by a few possessions, Liberty began to press on their possessions and it became an easy win.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Liberty At Oklahoma State Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

What about the team now?

Last year Liberty went 23-6, they were 98th in KenPom, and were a 13 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They lost to Missouri, Purdue, TCU, Lipscomb, Stetson, and then Oklahoma State in the NCAA First round.

Last year when Mizzou beat Liberty, they only had 3 players score in double figures and no one had more than 12. Falling just short of the double digit threshold was senior Point Guard Darius McGhee, who led the Flames in scoring last year and returns this season. Blake Preston and Kyle Rode are also back, and here’s a picture in which I’m honestly not sure who is who.

NCAA Basketball: Hall of Fame Classic Championship Game Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

One is 6’7, the other 6’9, both are white forwards with short brown hair. Preston played consistent minutes throughout the season, while Rode was a much more relied upon post player.

All in all, the Flames return a good amount of production from a really good team last year, including virtually their entire playing rotation minus point guard Chris Parker and wing Elijah Cuffee. Making up for nearly 20 points per game for a team which averages a possession every commercial break is no small feat.

But I’d expect a raucous, faintly vaccinated crowd awaiting the Tigers in Lynchburg and pulling out on the bus with a win will be difficult. Considering how little we know about this version of the Missouri Tigers, anything is on the table. They could blow the doors off the Flames with a new uptempo look, they could lose to a more experienced team with a more ingrained sense of self, but what’s most likely is they play a close game on the road against a good team.

Liberty will be Mizzou’s 7th game of the season, and there are three games Mizzou absolutely should win and three which you could put into the “toss-up” category. If the Tigers are 3-3, I think you expect a loss in Lynchburg. If they’re 4-2 you’re feeling a little better, 5-1 and it’s a game they should win.

I still think the unknowns we have about this club leave a host of outcomes possible, including this weird outlier trip to the campus of Jerry Falwell U.