Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Liberty Flames are NCAA Tourney-Bound with 15-20 Record

Despite a 15-20 record, the Liberty Flames are going dancing. (Willis Glasgow)

Four years ago, none of the Liberty Flames could see the light. They were coming off the heels of a 23-12 record but failed to receive an at-large big to the NCAA Tournament after losing in the Big South Tournament and missing out on the conference's automatic bid. On top of it all, their star freshman announced he was transferring to a higher profile school after breaking Liberty's 3-point field goal record and leading the nation's froshes in scoring. Now? Seth Curry is finishing his college career at Duke and the Flames, with a 15-20 overall record including a late run to the Big South tourney title, are anticipating the moment their name is announced on Selection Sunday.

As the first league to complete a concluding tournament, the Big South gave Liberty plenty of time to enjoy the hype around the school's third-ever NCAA Tournament berth. The turnaround from its previous appearance in 2004 was not necessarily a quick one, but for a small program that has only held Division I membership since 1988 — and made the jump from the NAIA to Division II in 1980 — this is monumental. Especially considering the way Winthrop has monopolized most of the Big South's bids since 1999, until UNC-Asheville supplanted the Eagles in 2011. Especially considering their record, as the Flames become the second team with 20 or more losses to feel March Madness, joining Coppin State's 16-21 2008 squad.

If the devastating 84-42 final of Liberty's season opener at Richmond didn't feel damning, the following seven games must have. The Flames began on an eight-game losing streak before picking up one win that was quickly humbled with two more defeats. But spearheaded by John Caleb Sanders and the junior guard's team-leading 14.2 points and 3.5 assists per game, the Flames strung together three straight victories heading into conference competition. They then played with an inconsistency that dotted their schedule with alternating W's and L's, blocking them from winning consecutive games until their final regular season contest prefaced a run through four games in six days on the way to the Big South title.

Of course, that last game the one against a Charleston-Southern team tied for first place in the conference, with two times more wins (12) than Liberty in Big South play and four more on the season — is the one that mattered, and it ended with the Flames in championship regalia. Whether or not a sub-.500 team be admitted to the field of 68 is an argument for a different time; it should be appreciated in March.

History is not on Liberty's side. The Flames are 0-2 in NCAA tourney appearances, losing 82-63 to Saint Joseph's in 2004 and 71-51 to North Carolina in 1994. The present evidence does not do much to support the Flames either, as their total record and RPI (.429 winning percentage, ranked 290 out 347) seemingly leave them unprepared to face the higher seeded team they will inevitably draw.

Liberty lost most of its games this season, but if there is anything such as a "good loss," the Flames have it. On Nov. 14, they went to Georgetown and left with a nine-point loss. Granted, the Hoyas were a much different team then, but so was Liberty. And, if you're playing the odds, most teams won't go into the NCAA tournament with a five-game winning streak.

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