There was no speech to be made. As Layer says, “Not a single word could’ve turned things around for us.” There was no explanation for the way the Liberty Flames began their season, as one of the nation’s worst men’s basketball teams, and only a madman would have suggested a trip to the NCAA tournament was possible.
Layer had faith, though. His players had faith. The entire school, in fact, was founded on faith. And so here, 31
2 months later, the least logical entity in this swirl of March Madness, opens the tournament Tuesday night in Dayton, Ohio, facing North Carolina A&T in a play-in game.
Despite winning the Big South tournament, Liberty’s résumé is one of the worst the tournament has ever seen. With a 15-20 record, they’re only the second 20-loss team to ever reach the NCAA tournament and will carry the nation’s 289th-best RPI ranking into Tuesday’s game. They beat just 12 Division I opponents but not a single one was ranked in the top 150 of the RPI rankings. The Flames’ schedule was rated No. 297 in the nation, yet they couldn’t string together back-to-back wins over D-I schools until the conference tournament.
“The record doesn’t tell our full story,” junior Davon Marshall said.
Most students at Liberty enroll with a basic understanding of faith. The school was founded in 1971 by Jerry Falwell and still today requires students to adhere to strict Christian principles. Students who live on campus must attend convocation three times a week and all students must agree with a social contract called “the Liberty Way,” that covers everything from language (no cursing) and dating to the consumption of pop culture.
If nothing else, this season’s early struggles offered a great testament to the challenges of faith.
“If you’re 0-8, it’s going to be hard on a believer and a non-believer,” said junior John Caleb Sanders, the team’s leading scorer, averaging 14.2 points per game.
Before the season even began, the Flames lost their best player, Antwan Burrus, to a season-ending foot injury. They dropped their season opener to Richmond by 42 points. And then things started to get difficult.
Two more starters were sidelined because of injuries, and two others quit the team entirely. Attendance dipped below 1,300 at one point, and players could hear fans in the stands griping, challenging players to one-on-one matchups, debating when Layer might get fired.
“Everyone was questioning us,” Marshall said. “Sometimes I would just think ahead to my senior year, maybe just put this year behind me. But every day coach was telling us not to give up.”
Before loss No. 7, assistant coach Jason Eaker pleaded guilty to attempted possession of a controlled substance. He had been charged in the offseason with photocopying personal prescriptions. Eaker was immediately placed on administrative leave and never rejoined the team.