|Liberty's upset hopes vs. Mississippi State hinge on pace|
Liberty already has a win this season at UCLA, coach Ben Howland's former school. Now, the Flames will try to get an even bigger win over Howland's current team.
Liberty, seeded 12th in the East Region, will take on No. 5 seed Mississippi State on Friday in San Jose, Calif.
"They're athletic as all get-out," Liberty coach Ritchie McKay said of the Bulldogs in the News & Advance newspaper in Lynchburg, Va.
"When you can rotate really three, four bigs in at the same time, and all can score and defend and have just incredible length, that poses some challenges for us. We don't have that same size and weight."
The Flames also don't have someone like Mississippi State senior shooting guard Quinndary Weatherspoon, who averages 18.2 points per game and is one of the "athletic as all get-out" players, capable of finishing at the rim or shooting a 3-ball (39.8 percent).
But the Flames (28-6) do have a few tricks to try counter the size and athleticism of Mississippi State (23-10).
McKay was Tony Bennett's associate head coach for six years at Virginia, and there is similar DNA between the programs. The Flames run the Bennett-style pack-line defense, which could make it difficult for Weatherspoon and other Bulldogs to get to the rim. They also adhere to a patient, deliberate style on offense intent on limiting possessions, especially against more-athletic teams.
Only four teams in the country have played at a slower tempo than Liberty, according to KenPom.com. Virginia is one of them.
"Liberty is going to be really tough," said Howland, who is in his fourth season with the Bulldogs. "They're going to be really, really sound on both ends of the floor."
The Flames imposed their slow tempo in a 73-58 win at UCLA on Dec. 29, but they had trouble defensively against the two SEC teams on their schedule. Liberty kept things close -- losing by nine each to Vanderbilt and Alabama -- but those SEC schools feasted on free throws, combining to take 67 attempts.
"Those teams, we didn't play at our pace; we played their game and didn't take great shots, either," Liberty junior point guard Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz said in the News & Advance. "This is a great opportunity for us to don't do that again and do what we do every day."
Weatherspoon has 1,985 career points and has plenty of help on offense from point guard Lamar Peters (11.7 points, 5.2 assists per game) and guard Tyson Carter (10.5 points). Carter has started the past nine games for indefinitely suspended Nick Weatherspoon, Quinndary's younger brother. Howland has been mum on whether Nick Weatherspoon could return in the tournament.
Mississippi State is playing in its first NCAA Tournament since 2009.
This is Liberty's fourth all-time appearance in the tourney, the first since 2013 and its first as something other than a No. 16 seed.
The Flames advanced to the NCAA Tournament by beating top-seeded Lipscomb in the Atlantic Sun tournament championship game.
Liberty's Scottie James was the MVP of the tournament after earning first-team all-conference honors. James, at 6-foot-8 the tallest player in the Flames' starting lineup, is averaging 13.1 points and 8.7 rebounds, leading the team in both categories.
The Bulldogs have three players who stand at least 6-10 in their post rotation.
But Liberty figures if it doesn't get sped up, it has a chance to pull off the upset.
"I think if we don't turn the ball over and we play our game and play our pace, we will be great in that game," Pacheco-Ortiz said. "We have to take care of the ball and make the right decisions."
--Field Level Media