John Caleb Sanders is a junior guard for Liberty. The Flames (15-20) won the Big South Conference tournament to clinch an NCAA tournament bid. Liberty plays North Carolina A&T in a first-round game on Tuesday night to become the 16th seed in the Midwest Region. The winner meets Louisville, the No. 1 overall seed, on Thursday.
It finally hit me last night that the Liberty Flames are in the NCAA tournament. You see your name in the bracket. Now today, we’re flying out, and it’s starting to become real.
Over the last week, it almost felt like Christmas break. We were practicing and not playing, and you didn’t really know what was next.
We leave today on a charter jet that will pick us up at the Lynchburg Airport, which is about a half-mile from campus. The plan is to rest a little bit when we get to Dayton, eat and have a short practice. We reviewed North Carolina A&T's stuff last night for the first time, and we’ll go over it again, but there isn’t a ton of time to prepare because we play the early game on Tuesday.
It’s going to be wild to play in front of such a big crowd. Most of the guys haven’t experienced that. As crazy as this may sound, I did in high school. I was home-schooled, and at Home School Nationals, we used to almost pack out Missouri State’s arena. The crowd was not hostile, as you can imagine with home-school families, but it was a lot of people.
We also traveled to Texas A&M last year, and the building was about half-full. We should handle the crowd well.
The key this week is that we get rest and have faith. No one has really believed in us, so that’s nothing new. I try not to pay attention to that stuff, but even fans around here lost faith. Our last home game, we probably had 1,000 people. My sophomore year, we averaged closer to 3,000.
Anyway, it was one of the worst home crowds, and that was on senior night. You could tell people had started to give up on us for this year and look forward to next year.
There was a little blurb on a blog that said we had a 0.5 percent chance to win the Big South. We were 10th out of 12 teams, but playing well. You want to say if you play hard, anything can happen. That was our focus. Everything kind of flipped for us once we won at Radford and beat Coastal Carolina.
Like I said before, it’s real now that we have an opponent. I actually watched North Carolina A&T against Morgan State. Everyone knew we were going to be in the play-in game, so I looked at the SWAC and MEAC. I watched Morgan State closer because I thought it was going to win.
But A&T looked good. Just like any other team, it's hot right now. It's won four in a row. It has big guards. It's physical and rebounds well. It’s going to be a tough game.
I don’t feel like a massive underdog going into this game. I don’t know who the better team is; our records are not that different. If we win the game and get to play Louisville, we’ve just got to go in, have fun and enjoy the moment. Hey, we’ve got some good scorers. We shoot the ball and rebound well.
I’ve been saying this all week: It’s called March Madness for a reason. You go in there, play 40 minutes and you have no idea what could happen.
I’m a strong believer. Putting faith in God to keep persevering is the reason we’re here. We’re in the NCAA tournament for a purpose, and the bigger the stage we get, the more we have a chance to honor God.
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