LYNCHBURG, Va. — If anyone dared to imagine the scenario, it would be easy to picture Liberty Coach Dale Layer encircled by his wide-eyed players, his words gathering steam and his voice boiling with energy. He could have made sense out of the hell they had just endured and promised them a better day was coming.
“That’s Hollywood,” Layer said. “That’s not reality.”
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.
“The kids have been unreal . . . truly an inspiration as I walked through my own personal adversity,” said Eaker, who had recruited 13 of the 15 players on the team and had been at the school for eight seasons.
The Flames, meantime, dropped their first eight games of the season. They lost 10 games, in fact, before they managed to beat a single Division I opponent.
“It’s about as low of a point as you can have,” said Layer, the fourth-year head coach.
During the lowest moments, a handful of players began gathering for a weekly Bible study. They started off with the book of John, connecting the New Testament tale with their own lives, their own struggles.
“We read about Jesus turning water into wine,” said senior Tavares Speaks, a regular at those meetings. “We thought, if he could make that miracle happen, the sky’s the limit for us. I kept that in mind all season.”
There was no single turning point. The Flames simply kept working and kept praying. Layer told his players: “Work like it depends on you. Pray like it depends on God.” The coach saw steady improvement, and the entire team had high hopes entering the conference tournament, despite the difficult path the Flames faced.
Liberty opened the tournament at Coastal Carolina, which was 12-3 this season on its own court. They somehow won and advanced to face to the division’s top seed, High Point, which had the benefit of a first-round bye. Another win brought another challenge: Gardner-Webb, winners of eight straight and the hottest team in the conference. All of that for the honor to face Charleston Southern, which had been the conference’s top squad for nearly the entire season.
The Flames put together their one winning streak when it mattered most and entered NCAA tournament play with a seemingly impossible task. If they get past North Carolina A&T on Tuesday, they would advance to face Louisville, trying to become the first No. 16 seed in tournament history to beat a No. 1 seed.
The challenge doesn’t deter the Flames. The worst, they figure, is behind them. When tournament play tips off Tuesday night, those 20 losses, the November struggles and December failures won’t matter. Every team in the tournament is suddenly 0-0 again.
“When you’re a coach, you don’t want to see 20 on the right-hand column,” Layer said. “That’s a depressing number. But I think God had it in his plan. Losing 20 makes it a way bigger story than if we were 20-15. Losing the first eight games of the year makes it a bigger story. We went literally into the depths of college basketball. We were arguably the worst team in the country. I think God had it in his plans. We’ve already beaten the odds.”