Time for our annual NCAA Tournament preview, wherein the Box picks the most improbable team to receive an invitation and gives you, oh Sporting Box regulars, an inside line. This year’s honoree is Liberty University of Lynchburg, Virginia.
Even counting a five-game winning streak capped with a Big South tournament victory, the L.U. Flames finished with a 15–20 record and .429 winning percentage. That’s what it takes, Pilgrim, to earn the 2013 Most Improbable Team trophy.
I’m on the phone with Damien Sordelett, a sports writer for Lynchburg’s The News & Advance. Sordelett, 27, graduated in communications from George Mason, interned at USA Today, and is working his way up the newspaper food chain, moving to a larger paper with each new job. I mention that Liberty University is a much bigger school than I thought it was.
Sordelett says, “They have 12,000 or 13,000 kids living on campus, 60,000 kids taking online classes. They’ve just finished an expansion of their football stadium, they’re building a new baseball facility, and adding practice courts to their basketball facility.”
On to business. I ask, “What’s your take on the men’s basketball team?”
“No one really expected the men to do much of anything. Home attendance during the year averaged 2000 to 3000. This is an 8000-seat facility they play in. No one figured they would get as far as they got.
“Gayle Layer, the coach, said in early January, after they completed their first three-game winning streak, that they were a month behind. Injuries hurt them to start the year. Antwan Burrus [forward] injured his foot before the season started. Joel Vander Pol, who played his best during the conference tournament, had two back surgeries during the off-season. Tomasz Gielo — 6 feet, 9 inches, he’d play wing, he’d play post — had a hip injury a week prior to the season opener and missed the first several weeks.
“They were constantly integrating new pieces throughout the season. They had to replace Jesse Sanders, who was a point guard, the only player in Division I history to have a triple double in each of his four seasons. They replaced him with Devon Marshall, who had never played point guard before this year. They had to integrate a new center in JR Coronado, who ended up starting most every game throughout the year.
“They had to find ways to integrate all these new pieces, which is why, when their season started, they were in training-camp mode. By the time they got to January, they were a couple months behind. By the time they got to February, they were a month behind. Right near the end of February, they caught up with everyone.”
I ask, “Are they a pretty good team now?”
Sordelett says, “They’re a good team with a full, healthy post rotation. They have 6-foot, 10-inch and 6-foot, 8-inch centers. They have a 6-foot, 9-inch athletic power forward. You put in Tomasz Gielo at 6 feet, 9 inches, and they have some length. They go with the four guard rotation with Devon Marshall, who was the tournament MVP. You have John Caleb Sanders, who has developed into his own this year — led the team in scoring, led the team in assists, one of the top rebounders. He found his role being a facilitator off-guard.”
“How would you rank this team against an ACC or Big Ten team?”
“They’re a Big South team, nowhere near as good as those ACC teams. We’re on the level of a Mountain West team or a West Coast [Conference] team.”
Everybody loves Cinderella. I ask, “Can Liberty beat somebody?”
“Oh, yeah,” Sordelett says. “They’re like the VALPO [Valparaiso] team that made the Sweet 16 run in the late ’90s. They have those types of pieces. They’re not great, but they’re a good team. They play well together, and that’s what you saw once they caught up with everyone. Marshall went 17 for 24 from three-point range in the four games during the [championship] week. If you need a basket, he’s the one who can get it for you.
“If you look at the conference tournament, they beat Coastal Carolina on its home court in the opening round. They beat the top seed from their division in High Point. Then they beat the hottest team in the league, Gardner-Webb, in the semifinals, and then they beat the number-one overall team in the championship game. You can’t really say they fluked into it.
“They’ll likely be that 16th seed in the play-in game. They could stay hot and win, but then comes the reality of playing an Indiana or a Gonzaga or Duke. Then you’ll see the gap between the top teams and these other schools.”