The season did not start well for the Liberty University Flames. They started 0-8, then 1-10, with the first six of those losses coming by double digits.
The season did not turn around for Liberty. The Flames went 6-10 in Big South conference play, good for fifth (out of six) in the northern division.
The season ended quite well for Liberty. Down in the Big South, everyone makes the conference tournament, and the Flames, who hadn't won more than three in a row all year (with the first two of that single streak coming against NAIA schools), ran the table. A big win over Coastal Carolina. A one-point win over second-seeded High Point. A three-point win over third-seeded Gardner-Webb. And yesterday afternoon, in the Big South conference championship game against top seed Charleston Southern, another win. Liberty can't stop winning. This is how you make the NCAA tournament with a record of 15-20.
Liberty's top scorer John Caleb Sanders knew something special was happening early on in the week. "When you can beat Coastal by 20 on their home floor, we knew we could beat anybody in this tournament,” which, ha, Big South relativity. But still—four games is all you need.
“We’ve played four of our best games in these four games of the tournament,” Sanders said. “Talk about peaking at the exact right time.”
Sanders was probably right about this being the peak. Recent college hoops history is littered with programs stumbling their way into the Big Dance, and it never ends well. Oakland, at 12-18 the team with the worst winning percentage to ever make the tourney, managed to get smeared all over the court by eventual champs North Carolina in 2005. Same for last year's under-.500 darlings Western Kentucky, who fell immediately to real Kentucky. Coppin State, the only other 20-loss team before Liberty, got bounced in their 2008 play-in game.
It's almost certainly the play-in game for the Flames, an anti-climactic Tuesday showdown with some SWAC or NEC or MEAC team who like Liberty, is just happy to be here. It'll be an afterthought for those of us watching and waiting for the real tournament to begin, but we're not who this is about. It's for Liberty's players, 14 students who gave just as much effort as Indiana or Duke, and as recently as a week ago, were wrapping up a lost season. Now they're conference champions and in the NCAA Tournament, and they'll always have it.
“You try to grind it out in the face of adversity,” Liberty coach Dale Layer said at a news conference. “A lot of men quit after losing eight straight. Not those guys in the locker room. They’ll never forget this and will never be the same because of it.”
Dayton has never looked so good.