Liberty Flames

2019 NCAA Tournament: Big men you need to know

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This might not be the Year of the Big Man, but the country has produced some really good ones this year.

There are some you know – there’s one everybody knows even if they’ve never even seen him play – and some you might not. T

hey are, however, all important to get acquainted with when you’re filling out your bracket.

Zion Williamson, Duke

I feel like I don’t need to explain this one. Just spend a couple minutes watching Zion do Zion stuff.

Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga

The Bulldogs have the best frontcourt duo in the country, and it gets to be an embarrassment of riches if you factor in Killian Tillie, who has hardly played this season due to injuries. Both Hachimura and Clarke could be NBA draft lottery picks in a couple months, and they’re a big reason why the Zags once again secured a No. 1 seed and could be headed back to the title game. Clarke might be the best two-way player in the country, shooting 69 percent from the floor while swatting 11 percent of opponents’ shot attempts while he’s in the game while also being an elite rebounder with the ability to defend on the perimeter. Hachimura might be the better pro prospect with a little-used-but-effective 3-point stroke to go along with his athleticism and 6-foot-8, 230-pound frame. Together, it’s an incredibly formidable frontcourt.

Ignas Brazdeikis, Michigan

The freshman from Ontario is a major reason while the Wolverines look capable of returning to the Final Four. He’s averaging 15.1 points and 5.2 rebounds per  game while shooting 42 percent from 3-point range. He’s not alone in the Wolverine fonrtcourt, though, getting help from 7-foot-1 junior Jon Teske, whose rebounding and shot-blocking are solid complements to Brazdeikis.

Luke Maye, North Carolina

Luke Maye wasn’t the first-team All-American type many thought possible this season, but he’s been really good for a No. 1 seed. The senior is averaging 14.7 points and 10.5 rebounds. He’s got tournament experience – NCAA tournament hero experience, no less. Oh, and championship experience. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him replicate both.

Ethan Happ, Wisconsin

The Badger big man hasn’t been in the conversation for national player of the year for a lot of legit reasons, but his production would suggest he’s one of the country’s best players. He’s more central and critical to Wisconsin’s offense than nearly any other player for any other team nationwide, and he’s still incredibly productive and efficient. He’s a premier rebounding, a fantastic passer and assistman and a strong fundamental defender, even if his shot blocking isn’t high-level. Wisconsin’s supporting cast has been the question for much of the last two seasons – which included Wisconsin’s first missed NCAA tournament in two decades last year – but Happ is good enough to get the Badgers through tough spots. As long as he doesn’t have to shoot free throws, an area in which his percentage has plummetted from 64.3 percent as a freshman to 46.5 percent as a senior.

Cameron Jackson, Wofford

Wondering how Wofford got so much love this season? Well, they’re really good, for one, but Jackson is a huge part of that success. The 6-foot-8, 250-pound Virginia native averages 14.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.5 steals and 1 block per game while shooting 58.1 percent from the floor. He’s a high-usage player and a very good rebounder that helps give the Terriers their bite.

Dedric Lawson, Kansas

This season was disappointing by the standards set by Kansas, which missed out on the Big 12 regular-season title for the first time in 14 years, but things didn’t totally crater largely because of Lawson’s excellence. The Memphis transfer averaged 19.1 points and 10.3 rebounds along with 1.7 assists per game. He was the center of everything the Jayhawks did as they lost players to suspension, injuries and a leave of absence. If Kansas is going to go on a run, the Jayhawks are going to need someone like Marcus Garrett, Devon Dotson or Quentin Grimes to outpace their regular-season production, but Lawson will be the foundation that off of which they’ll build.

Bruno Fernando, Maryland

The 6-foot-10, 240-pounder is one of the more physically imposing players in the country with the stats to back it up. He’s a high-level rebounder and a good shot blocker that figures to be a first-round pick come June. If he gets the ball around the goal, he’s probably scoring.

Jordan Murphy, Minnesota

The Big Ten’s all-time career rebounder, Murphy should surpass 1,300 career boards against Louisville on Thursday. He’s averaging 11.5 boards per game this season, doing most of his damage of the defensive end with a 28.5 rebounding percentage there. He’s a capable scorer at 14.5 points per game with a shooting percentage of 48.3 percent, but it’ll be his work on the glass that’ll help the Gophers try to win their first NCAA tournament game under Richard Pitino, against his father’s former employer, no less.

Darnell Cowart, Murray State

Ja Morant deservedly gets the headlines, but if the Racers make a play for the second weekend, it wouldn’t be surpringing to see Cowart, at 6-foot-8 and nearly 300 pounds, play a big part. He’s an elite offensive rebounder at 14.5 percent, and averages 10.4 points per game. Now, I did mention Morant, so by rule we have to take a moment to watch him dunk.

Nick Muszynski, Belmont

The 6-foot-11 freshman is both an excellent passer and solid shot blocker. He’s posting 2.2 swats per game along with 2.7 assists. Add that to his 61.4 percent field goal number, and he makes a pretty strong complement to Dylan Windler. 

Scottie James, Liberty

If James shoots it, it’s likely going in. As in an overwhelming likelihood. The Liberty big man is shooting 70.3 percent from the floor this season, top-15 in the country. He’s also a great rebounder, corralling 15.6 percent of his own team’s misses and 27.6 percent of his opponents’, both of which are top-25 numbers nationally.

Drew McDonald, Northern Kentucky

The Horizon League player of the year is averaging 19.1 points and 9.5 rebounds per game this season while shooting 38.4 percent from 3. The Norse’s upset chances likely hinge on how well he plays against Texas Tech.

 

Sunday’s Things to Know: Houston wins AAC title; three autobids earned; bubble madness in the Big Ten

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The final regular-season Sunday in college basketball had some drama as a major conference title was decided. On the postseason side, three more autobids were also claimed while the bubble had some action as well.

Houston runs past Cincinnati to claim AAC regular-season title

Houston earned its first regular-season conference title since 1992 with a convincing 85-69 road win at No. 20 Cincinnati. The No. 12 Cougars poured on 48 second-half points as they went on a 35-12 run to put the game away. Corey Davis Jr. scored a career-high 31 points while freshman Nate Hinton produced a double-double of 16 points and 11 rebounds — knocking down some key three-pointers to ignite the comeback run.

For the fourth time in the last six games, Houston scored at least 85 points, which is a notable accomplishment considering the Cougars generally prefer to play on the slower side (232nd in adjusted tempo on KenPom). Houston already has a top-15 defense, so if its offense is getting hot before the postseason, then it’s a trend to keep an eye on during Championship Week.

Autobids handed out to Bradley, Gardner-Webb and Liberty

Sunday didn’t have very many regular-season games left. But there were plenty of conference tournaments to keep track of with three autobids being handed out in traditionally one-bid leagues.

The Big South kicked the autobid day off as Gardner-Webb earned its first NCAA tournament bid in school history by knocking off Radford for a true road win. With back-to-back true road wins during the conference tournament, the Bulldogs certainly earned their way into the Field of 68 with two difficult wins.

Things got crazy during the second half of the Missouri Valley Conference title game shortly after as Bradley rallied from an 18-point second-half deficit to stun Northern Iowa. A day after knocking out a Final Four team from last year in Valley No. 1 seed Loyola, the Braves followed it up with their eighth win of the season in which they were trailing at halftime to come back and win. This will be Bradley’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006 when they stunned the nation as a No. 13 seed who made the Sweet 16.

Finally, Liberty gutted out yet another road win for a team in an autobid situation by advancing in front of a sold-out crowd at Lipscomb. A high-level game featuring two teams who deserve a real look from the NCAA tournament committee, the Flames are back in the Big Dance for the first time since 2013. While Liberty is a potentially-dangerous double-digit seed, Lipscomb remains on the bubble as they have a long week of waiting ahead.

The bubble gets crazy in the Big Ten

Among bubble teams playing on Sunday, things got especially chaotic in the Big Ten. Indiana began the conference’s bubble day with a home win over Rutgers. Winners of four consecutive games, the Hoosiers have played their way back into the serious at-large discussion after a mid-season freefall.

Later in the afternoon, No. 21 Wisconsin outlasted Ohio State for an overtime road win that brutally hurts the Buckeyes’ bubble profile. Rallying from 23 points down to tie the game and force overtime, this was a golden opportunity for Ohio State to add some insurance by getting another Q1 win. Instead, they’ve dropped three straight games as the slide continues entering the postseason.

These two results mean that Thursday’s Big Ten tournament matchup between Indiana and Ohio State will have massive implications for the bubble. Both of these teams appear to be teetering right on the edge of the cut line as this result could ultimately put one team in while leaving the other team out of the proceedings.

Introducing Cinderella: Liberty wins the Atlantic Sun bid in first year in the league

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In its first season as a member of the Atlantic Sun, Liberty closed out Lipscomb with a 74-68 road win on Sunday to clinch the league’s autobid into the NCAA tournament. Coming off of back-to-back 20-win seasons and CIT appearances, the Flames took the next step for their program by knocking off its new conference rival in front of a packed crowd.

Junior forward Scottie James paced Liberty with 17 points and eight rebounds, also becoming Internet Famous for a preposterous flop in the game’s final minutes. Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz buried a critical three-pointer to give the Flames a four-point lead with under a minute left as the junior guard finished with 16 points.

CONFERENCE: Atlantic Sun

COACH: Ritchie McKay

RECORD: 27-6, 14-2 in the Atlantic Sun

RATINGS:

  • KENPOM: 64
  • NET: 63

PROJECTED SEED: In our latest NBC Sports bracket, Lipscomb was projected to get in as a No. 12 seed and Liberty’s numbers are only slightly worse. That means the Flames could be in the No. 13 or No. 14 seed range with the chance to potentially ascend if things go crazy during Championship Week.

NAMES YOU NEED TO KNOW: Relying heavily on six players as the core rotation, Liberty is led by three standout scorers. Junior forward Scottie James (13.0 ppg, 8.8 rpg) is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder while also shooting 67 percent from the floor this season. Junior wing Caleb Homesley (12.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and senior guard Lovell Cabbil Jr. (11.5 ppg, 43% 3PT) can also fill it up.

BIG WINS, BAD LOSSES: Liberty’s two road wins at Lipscomb (including Sunday’s victory) were both classified as Q1 victories. The Flames also earned a true road win at UCLA during non-conference season. Going 18-0 against Q4 opponents, Liberty deserves credit for not having any truly horrible losses. A road loss at North Florida (189) is the worst loss of the year for Liberty.

STATS YOU NEED TO KNOW: One of the slowest teams in the country in terms of tempo, Liberty prefers to play the game at a snail’s pace. And with a remarkable 56.1 effective field goal percentage (12th in the country), Liberty plays slow and practices good shot selection. With McKay being a former assistant at Virginia under head coach Tony Bennett before returning to Liberty, it makes sense that the Flames would try to mimic some things the Cavaliers have used so effectively.

HOW DO I KNOW YOU?: Making three NCAA tournament appearances before this (1994, 2004, 2013), Liberty has had some decent teams and players in recent times. Before transferring to Duke, Seth Curry started his career with the Flames. Veteran college basketball official Karl Hess is also a Liberty basketball alum as he’s the program’s all-time leading scorer.

FINAL THOUGHT: Liberty hasn’t received as much national attention as Lipscomb has this season, but the Flames have been right in the Atlantic Sun picture with the Bisons the entire time. Winning two out of three games (both on the road) against Lipscomb this season, Liberty is a team that shouldn’t be taken lightly heading into March.

Big South Preview: Can John Brown take down Coastal Carolina?

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big South Conference.

A month before the Big South Tournament started, seven teams were tied for first place in the conference standings. Once the tournament began, the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds were bounced in the quarterfinals. Despite all the parity and chaos in the league, the tournament champion remained the same.

Coastal Carolina is eyeing a third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament in its final season in the Big South before moving to the Sun Belt Conference.

The Chanticleers bring back Elijah Wilson, the Big South Tournament MVP, point guard Shivaughn Wiggins and power forward Badou Diagne. That trio could make a three-peat possible. Coastal Carolina boasted one of the conference’s most efficient offenses and defenses, and tops in both offensive and defensive rebounding 2014-15. The production of graduating guards Warren Gillis and Josh Cameron won’t be easily replaced, but if they defend and crash the boards like they’ve done in the past, the Chanticleers will be in a good position when they host the Big South Tournament again in March.

Like the Chanticleers, many of the teams across the Big South have lost start players. Of the 15 players named to the all-conference teams last March, only two of them return this season.

One of them is High Point senior John Brown, the ultra-athletic and physically imposing forward. Through his first three years he’s averaged 18.5 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. He’s helped the Panthers win at least a share of the last three regular season titles, but has no NCAA tournament appearances to show for it. Click here and check out some of the dunks he’s thrown down over the years. Now imagine him playing on the first Thursday or Friday of the NCAA tournament. Fun, right? Surrounded by a cast of upperclassmen, Brown could finally get that shot this spring.

Winthrop graduated two double-digit scorers, including first-team selection Keon Moore. Keon Johnson will be the key holder over in a new-look perimeter that could feature not one, but two Division II transfers. Jimmy Gavin’s amazing journey was chronicled back in May. Roderick Perkins, a 6-foot-5 wing, was the second-leading scorer in all of D2 in 2013-14. Winthrop’s defense, rated as the most efficient in the Big South, returns a pair of shot-blockers — Xavier Cooks and Duby Okeke — the frontline. Zach Price, the former Louisville and Missouri big man, is eligible this season, as well.

Longwood could be a dangerous team, especially if the Lancers can get quality play from the back court. The Lancers have one conference’s best front courts. Shaquille Johnson is one of the league’s top athletes. Lotanna Nwogbo, the 6-foot-8 forward, is back after missing the last 17 games of conference play with a thumb ligament tear. In three full Big South contest, he was averaging 19.3 points and 12.0 boards per game. Gardner-Webb is dealing with the loss of Jerome Hill and Tyler Strange, but returns six of its top nine scorers, including Tyrell Nelson. Radford should be another potential sleeper. YaYa Anderson is joined by senior Rashun Davis and Cameron Jones, the potential breakout star of the league.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “In my mind, it would probably be High Point. There will be several teams that have really good players back, but High Point has several really good players back and John Brown has been one of the top players in the league for the last three years. Probably the team with the most experience, top to bottom, coming back is Coastal. I think they have four starters back, but I think they lose two really good players. On paper, as you look at it, Coastal makes sense to pick first.”
  • Sleeper: “I think a lot of people would say Longwood. I think they have a talented roster and they have a player on their team (Lotanna Nwogbo) I think a lot of people would talk about having a chance to be one of the better players in the league. He got hurt the second or third game in the conference season.”
  • Star to watch: “I’d say John Brown should be the favorite for preseason player of the year. There are a lot of good ones, but he’s definitely been really good for a long period of time. I think it starts with his motor and how hard he competes and how physical he is. He just stays after it every possession. He really plays so hard on both ends. He’s great at working at working on catching the ball at the rim and using his size and athleticism to score in the paint. Then he’ll get stuff in transition and on the offensive glass. He’s a monster.”

PRESEASON BIG SOUTH PLAYER OF THE YEAR: John Brown, High Point

Brown, maybe the best dunker in all of college basketball, returns for his senior season after averaging 19.3 points and 6.0 rebounds per game in 2014-15. The 6-foot-8 nightmare matchup plays with a consistent motor. He understands angles and where to position himself on the floor in order to get easy buckets. Brown also creates opportunities for himself in the open floor and offensive glass.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON BIG SOUTH TEAM:

  • Tyrell Nelson, Gardner-Webb: The 6-foot-7 center was top-10 in the Big South in both scoring and rebounding at 13.9 points and 6.5 rebounds a night.
  • Elijah Wilson, Coastal Carolina: Had a strong finish to last season, earning Big South Tournament MVP honors. The 6-foot-4 guard is the top returning scorer at 11.3 points per game.
  • Shaquille Johnson, Longwood: The best athlete in the conference not named John Brown, Johnson averaged 13.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.5 steals per game last season.
  • DeSean Murray, Presbyterian: The Blue Hose will rely heavily on the 6-foot-5 sophomore, who recorded five double-doubles during conference play last season.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @BigSouthMBB

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Coastal Carolina
2. High Point
3. Winthrop
4. Longwood
5. Gardner-Webb
6. Radford
7. Charleston Southern
8. UNC Asheville
9. Campbell
10. Presbyterian
11. Liberty

Ole Miss lands graduate transfer forward

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Ole Miss landed a productive and efficient graduate transfer from Liberty as forward Tomasz Gielo committed to the Rebels on Twitter. The 6-foot-9 Gielo is a native of Poland and he’s eligible to play right away for his final season of college basketball.

Gielo averaged 12 points and 6.3 rebounds per game and shot 40 percent from 3-point range the last two seasons. He’ll give Ole Miss another floor spacer and a player who should crack the rotation and give some good minutes next season.

Gielo suffered a stress fracture in his right foot and only played seven games during the 2014-15 season.

Liberty re-hires former head coach Ritchie McKay

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Liberty is bringing back a familiar face, as the school announced former head coach Ritchie McKay’s return to his old job during a Wednesday afternoon press conference.

McKay, the associate head coach at Virginia under Tony Bennett since 2009, returns to the Flames after being the school’s head coach for two seasons between 2007-2009. Also the head coach at Portland State, Colorado State, Oregon State and New Mexico before his first stint at Liberty, McKay owns a career 204-186 career record.

“I would like to thank President Falwell. I’m truly honored and blessed to have the opportunity to come back to Liberty,” McKay said. “We’re going to serve you well. I’d like to share that same thanks to Jeff Barber. To have that relationship restored and to see his trust in me and my family is a blessing to me.”

At Liberty the first time around, McKay was 39-28 with a 19-13 record in the Big South. He helped recruit Seth Curry into the program before Curry left the Flames to transfer to Duke to finish out his college basketball career.

The past six seasons, McKay has been Bennett’s right-hand man in Virginia, helping the team to three NCAA tournament appearances the last four seasons.

In 13 seasons as a head coach, McKay has made one NCAA Tournament appearance, one NIT appearance and one CIT appearance.