BY JEFF BORZELLO
After the 2009 season, it looked like Liberty was well on its way to becoming a perennial power in the Big South.
The Flames were coming off a school-record 23 wins, Seth Curry was one of the best scorers in the country and Ritchie McKay was a hot commodity in the mid-major world.
Naturally, Curry then transferred to Duke and McKay accepted a job on Tony Bennett’s staff at Virginia.
“When we lost Seth Curry and Ritchie McKay, it was a hit to our program,” head coach Dale Layer said. “It shook guys emotionally, but it also gave us resolve. It was a clean slate when I got here. We didn’t even talk about Seth Curry; we focused on the guys that were here.”
That mindset has helped Layer get Liberty back to the upper-tier of the Big South Conference, despite being pegged to finish sixth in the league in the preseason.
A three-point loss to league-leader Coastal Carolina is the only defeat on the Flames’ conference record. They are 8-1, with four of the wins coming on the road.
“We’ve won some games we could have lost,” Layer said. “We have high-character guys and that has helped us in wins. I don’t know what my expectations for this team were, but we work hard and do the right thing.”
Similar to the Seth Curry days, this year’s version of the Flames is led by the younger brother of an NBA star.
Sophomore Evan Gordon, Eric’s younger brother, is the team’s top scorer (14.2 ppg) and one of the top players in the conference.
“He’s worked really hard and he’s more consistent,” Layer said. “I think it’s been a change for him. Last year, he was second or third on team’s scouring reports; now he’s the top guy. He’s attracting a lot of attention even though his numbers are about the same.”
Gordon is not the only potent perimeter player on the roster.
Jesse Sanders is one of the more productive floor generals at the mid-major level; last year, the junior led the Flames in both rebounding and assists.
“He’s not the prototypical point guard, but he’s unselfish and team-oriented,” Layer said of Sanders, who is averaging 10.2 points, 6.5 assists and 6.3 rebounds.
While that stat line is surprising and impressive, it pales in comparison to 6-foot-4 sophomore John Brown’s double-double averages. Brown is currently putting up 11.6 points and 10.2 rebounds, including 10 double-doubles already this season.
“He’s gifted athletically and he knows where the ball is going to be, in the air or on the floor,” Layer said. “He’s also an intense competitor.”
With the news that Coastal Carolina forward Mike Holmes was kicked off the team recently, there might be an opening for Liberty to sneak in and win the league.
The Flames are just a game behind Coastal with a key matchup set for Feb. 3.
Moreover, with no seniors playing significant roles, expect the Flames to stay near the top of the Big South for a few years.
“Our team has a toughness about it, and it’s shown in every practice,” Layer said. Gordon, Sanders and Brown have led us; they all fit the bill. They want to win. You can find blemishes in those guys, but they compete.”