With the district title now in hand, Rakeem Buckles is focused on leading Pace to a third straight Florida Class 4A state championship.
"We're now going to the regional playoffs," Lieberman said. "Comparing that to the NCAA Tournament it's like the round of 32. There are 32 regional teams left in our classification. We play a home game Thursday night against Fort Lauderdale High School. So there's three regional games to get to the state tournament. And it's one and done to get to the final four."
Buckles has made big progress from his junior season, when he averaged 14 points and nine rebounds. The future Louisville forward has become the undisputed leader of one of the top teams in Florida.
"I think he's taking ownership," Lieberman said. "In his junior year we had three other Division 1 players on the roster, including Ray Shipman at Florida. So sometimes the offense didn't have to go through him and he would have to generate offense on second shots and out-working people. He's still doing that but now we go through him."
Lieberman said he's seen significant progress in Buckles' offensive abilities this season.
"He's become a very good post-passer," said Lieberman. "He's a very good facilitator getting the basketball to his teammates. His assists have gone up from about 1.5 as a junior to about three or four this year. He shoots it better – I think he's knocked down 17 three-point shots this year. His face-up game his improved and he's able to knock down 10-12 footers."
"He's a really unselfish superstar," added Lieberman.
With Earl Clark expected to enter the NBA Draft following his junior season, Buckles could step in next season and fill that potential void at power forward for the Cardinals.
"I would think they (Louisville) see him as one of those guys who can be an Earl Clark-type of four that can step out," Lieberman said. "I don't think he has the range consistently as Earl has but eventually he'll get there."
Adding strength to his frame will be a primary focus for Buckles this off-season.
"He'll definitely have to get stronger," Lieberman said. "He's about 210 pounds right now but I know he's committed to get stronger as soon as our season is over. I know Rakeem is going to do whatever Coach Pitino wants him to do to be able to play as a freshman in the Big East. The thing he can do is rebound the basketball. He is a tremendous rebounder from his position. He's obsessed with rebounding so I think he can (do) that as a freshman."
Lieberman said that Buckles will play in the Kentucky Derby Festival Basketball Classic at Freedom Hall April 10-11.
"There's (also) a very big game down here – the Dade-Broward All-Star game. It's a pretty big deal down here," Lieberman said. "So if he's not selected for the McDonald's game he'll play in that game."