Even at the lower levels of NCAA Division I, there are programs that are sleeping giants. Liberty is one such place, a school where the resources have often outpaced the results on the court. The Flames often have been far more asleep than a giant since joining D-I almost 30 years ago, but the school’s coaching history has been…interesting? Quirky? Bizarre? Take your pick.
Liberty has its new coach to replace Dale Layer, and it’s one of the school’s former coaches. Ritchie McKay coached the Flames for two years from 2007-09 before leaving to take an assistant position at Virginia. In his second year at Liberty, McKay led the team to a 23-12 record, tying the school’s NCAA Division I record for wins.
Before going to UVA, it was safe to say McKay was well-traveled. McKay almost made Larry Brown look like a homebody, making stops at five schools in a span of 12 years, a list that besides Liberty included Portland State, Colorado State, Oregon State and a five-year stint at New Mexico. McKay was on the hot young coach lists for a number of years before a mediocre tenure as the Lobos’ head coach, but he recovered nicely to have a hand in the re-emergence of Virginia as a national power.
Having a coach return for a second term is nothing new for Liberty. Randy Dunton served as the Flames interim coach in 1997-98 but was not offered the head coaching position. Dunton later was hired by the school, coaching from 2002-07 and leading Liberty to an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2004.
This history makes it even more of a hoot that multiple reports stated that Michigan assistant Jeff Meyer also was in the mix for the position. Meyer also served as the coach at the school from 1981-97, leading it from the NAIA to NCAA Division I ranks, coached Liberty to its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 1994, and is the winningest coach in school history. It was Dunton who succeeded Meyer in 1997 after he was fired by the school, despite a 23-9 record in 1996-97. Based on all of this, Layer may want to keep the Lynchburg campus on his speed dial.
Aside from all of that, it’s easy to see why the Liberty position is attractive. The Flames play in the Vines Center, a very nice 8,000-seat facility, and the school is very, very well off financially. It’s also no secret the school has big hopes and aspirations, one that includes eventual NCAA Division I-A (FBS) classification. It’s baffling why the Flames haven’t won more yet in the Big South, and perhaps that should be the school’s focus for now, to win where it’s at before focusing on bigger things.
- Loyola (Ill.) won the CBI championship on Wednesday, edging Louisiana-Monroe 63-62 to win the championship series 2-0. Loyola’s Earl Peterson was named the tournament MVP. It’s the school’s first postseason tournament championship since winning the 1963 NCAA title. From 10-22 last year to 24-13 this season and a CBI title, it’s been a special year for a program that has struggled for a long time but certainly looks on the right track under coach Porter Moser.
- Melo Trimble is officially returning to Maryland for his sophomore season, it was announced Wednesday. Good for him and the Terrapins. Trimble is a fun player to watch, regardless of where he fits in professionally someday. Also returning for his sophomore season is North Carolina guard/forward Justin Jackson, a guy high on the radar of the NBA at some point who averaged 10.7 points per game this year and at this point collegiately has been more potential than production.
- Among those going: high-scoring Eastern Washington guard Tyler Harvey is putting his name in for the draft, though he is leaving open the possibility of returning by not hiring an agent yet. Harvey led the nation in scoring this year and had some big games against name competition, though he also was plagued by injuries at times. Will be intriguing to see how he fares in pre-draft workouts and whether he stays in the draft or returns to EWU. Kansas freshman Kelly Oubre also is going pro after one year. Like Justin Jackson, Oubre was more hype than production as a freshman, averaging 9.3 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. Decent numbers for a freshman, hardly dominant, but if a player doesn’t want to be in college then there’s no reason to force him to be. Also, Houston guard Jherrod Stiggers is turning pro and has hired an agent. Stiggers had a decent year, averaging 14.2 points per game, but is not considered a big prospect for the NBA at this time
- Coaching news from late last night as multiple sources reported that Gregg Marshall is remaining at Wichita State and will receive a new contract averaging nearly $3 million per year. Great for the Shocker program in its quest to remain a national player and at a time when it’s getting harder and harder for any school outside the Big Football circle to compete financially when it comes to paying coaches. With money like this, it does raise the expectations that Wichita State is expecting a Gonzaga-like program from Marshall consistently. Undoubtedly that will not phase the quite-confident Marshall, but it does signal a very, very significant investment in basketball.
- The McDonald’s All-American Game was played last night, with the East all-stars defeating the West 111-91. Cheick Diallo was one of the stars with 18 points and 10 rebounds for the East. The native of Mali is undecided on a school yet and is looking at Iowa State, Kansas, Kentucky, Pittsburgh and St. John’s, an interesting mix of schools that also received a variable with the coaching change recently at St. John’s.
- Finally, because this has been a topic near to us all year, Connecticut women’s coach Geno Auriemma caused a few waves yesterday with comments on a conference call about men’s college basketball, saying the game was “a joke”, that “nobody can score” and that “women’s basketball is behind the times, but men’s basketball is so far behind the times it’s unbelievable.” Of course, Auriemma is known for being opinionated, which is a good thing to have from someone with his platform. Without knowing the full context of his quotes and exactly where he thinks the sports are behind the times, before passing judgment would be curious to hear more of his thoughts about the topic.
- The NIT championship game is tonight, with Miami (Fla.) facing Stanford at 9 p.m. EST (ESPN). The Cardinal is going for its second NIT title in four years.
- The CIT title game also is tonight, as Evansville hosts Northern Arizona (7 p.m. EST, CBSSN). The Purple Aces will try to make it a sweep of the CBI and CIT for the Missouri Valley Conference.
Enjoy your Thursday.