Everyone makes mistakes in prognostication, especially when it comes to the volatile and unpredictable Northeast Conference. This season I did a fair job at handicapping the teams, at least when compared to last season’s jumble that saw my ninth place team (Fairleigh Dickinson) play in the NCAA Tournament.
Assuming it sticks, I correctly slotted the Mount and Wagner into the top 3 for this campaign, although there’s one team that wasn’t close to my upper tier back in October:
- Fairleigh Dickinson
- Mount St. Mary’s
- Sacred Heart
- LIU Brooklyn
- Robert Morris
- St. Francis Brooklyn
- Saint Francis U.
- Central Connecticut
As you can see, I was not high on LIU. Even worse: this prediction was made BEFORE Joel Hernandez dislocated his thumb, so it’s not surprising that I became more bearish on LIU after the injury. I said as much in a post where I (rather incorrectly) categorized the Blackbird program as middling. Here’s an excerpt from that piece to really drive my inaccuracy home:
In reality, LIU is in an awkward spot with Frink in the final year of his eligibility, only because the team as currently comprised is likely a year or two away from championship contention… Hernandez’s injury may not bump LIU much lower from my original sixth place projection, but there’s no doubt that the Blackbirds ceiling just got a little lower.
Alrighty then. Since those infamous words, LIU Brooklyn has knocked off Northeastern and St. John’s while pushing themselves into second place in the NEC standings. Even if they drop their final two road contests to fall to 11-7 – such a scenario has a 50.3% chance of happening according to KenPom – the Blackbirds still will post their best conference record since the 2012-13 season.
What has made the difference? Obviously, Jerome Frink is terrific and should be on everyone’s short list of NEC player of the year candidates, but there are a number of other factors responsible for LIU’s rise. Allow me to examine each one in detail after pouring over the statistics and talking to Blackbirds coach Jack Perri on Monday evening.
A Defensive Resurgence
Defense hasn’t been a strong suit of a Perri coached club – the program has never finished in the NEC top 3 in defensive efficiency in his tenure. This season, however, the program is on a pace to break that threshold after allowing 96.6 points per 100 possessions through 16 league games. With a veteran frontcourt led by Frink and Nura Zanna, LIU has cleaned up the defensive glass on 72.6% of their opponent’s misses, good for first in the conference.
While the league’s best rebounding front-court has limited opponent’s second chance opportunities, a mild change from man-to-man with switching to straight up man-to-man has allowed the team to better contest shots. NEC opponents have an effective field goal percentage of just 47.0%.
“I think we’ve really focused on ball screen issues we’ve had in the past,” Perri said of his defense. “I think we’ve gotten better at that and we just rebound the ball at such a high level.”
With veteran bigs, it has been the backcourt talent, particularly Jashaun Agosto and Iverson Fleming, that has helped LIU seriously contest in the half-court set. Of Agosto, Perri is appreciative of the freshman’s effort: “(Agosto) has started us off each game with his ability to really contain the point guard.”
Fleming, who we’ll discuss more later on, has also been impressive on the defensive end. When the senior is on the floor, the Blackbirds allow 12.1 points per 100 possessions less when compared to him on the bench. Another fellow senior teammate, Frink, has been just as splendid, with LIU improving defensively by 10.7 points per 100 possessions. Which leads me to my next point…
The Invaluable Presence of a 4-Year Senior
While the stars have transferred from the league in greater frequency over the past few years, many would argue it’s the absence of the 3 and 4-year player that hurts programs just as much. The loss of those players arguably undermine a team’s cohesiveness and its climb towards Division I respectability.
Perri certainly agrees with this sentiment and believes his 2015-16 senior-less team was adversely affected from its lack of experience and maturity. This season, LIU is tied with Saint Francis University with the most ‘same-team’ seniors with 3 (Fleming, Hernandez and Glenn Feidanga), even though just one of those players has provided excellent value this season for the Blackbirds.
“He does do a lot of things on the defensive side and he’s not afraid to make a big play,” Perri said of Fleming. “And he’s made some big ones for us.”
The decision to allow Fleming to focus on being an off-the-ball guard, rather than a floor general also aided in his maturation and gives Perri an older, more savvy guard surrounded by a young backcourt.
Raiquan Clark Has Emerged As a Reliable Swingman
Mere months ago, Clark was considering a move to Division II in order to procure a free college education, that is until Perri ponied up with a scholarship. That decision has paid terrific dividends for the fifth-year coach. Clark currently leads the team in offensive rating (113.4), block rate (4.3%), fouls drawn per 40 minutes (5.3) and sits just a tick below Zanna in offensive rebounding rate (15.0%). The last number, as a matter of fact, is the 21st best rate in the country.
Clark’s athleticism and relentless nature has been a game changer, and likely never would’ve been discovered if Hernandez didn’t injure his thumb. When that opportunity opened up though, Clark’s talents have helped filled LIU’s need at the wing.
“He’s just a tough kid with a total knack for getting rebounds; he has good athleticism, a good body,” Perri said of his sophomore wing. “And the kid works as hard as anybody we’ve ever had.”
Throughout much of the season, Clark’s contribution had been inconsistent at times until he and his coach had a talk after a lackluster 0-point, 1-rebound effort versus Bryant two weeks ago. Perri recalled their conversation: “He wasn’t good in that game and the game before and (I told him) ‘Listen, you just have to be who you are and don’t worry about anything else. Just attack the offensive glass, defend and play with great energy and your minutes will go up.'”
Clark clearly heeded his coach’s advice – over the past 3 contests, the 6-foot-4 wing is averaging 14.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg and 1.7 spg while shooting 87.5% from the floor. That is a stunning turnaround for a former walk-on who played 0.2% of his team’s minutes as a freshman.
Overall, a myriad of things have been responsible for LIU’s ascension back into the top-tier. It has been a long road back from the days of Brickman, Boyd and Olasewere, yet with a little bit of luck, LIU has as realistic a shot to make the NCAA Tournament as anyone does in the NEC.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride