Two Eras Cross Paths In Hope Of A Special Season At LIU Brooklyn

For new LIU Brooklyn head coach Derek Kellogg, it is a fresh start with a new team in a new conference in a new state, a new city, a new borough.

For fifth-year senior guard Joel Hernandez, it is far from new. In reality, it is the beginning of the end. It is the start of the last go-around in a long five-year journey of attempting to reach the ultimate goal, an NEC championship, and an invitation to the NCAA tournament in March.  

And as the dawn of the 2017-18 college basketball season begins to break, a new era will commence in Downtown Brooklyn, at the 2,000-seat Steinberg Wellness Center. The Derek Kellogg era.

But it also begins the end of the Joel Hernandez era.

An era that started a season after LIU Brooklyn won back-to-back-to-back NEC championships and went to three consecutive NCAA tournaments, becoming the first and only NEC team to do so. An era that saw mostly a rebuild after the glory days of that NEC championship dynasty run. An era that was supposed to have concluded last season as part of a 20-win season. A team which finished with the two-seed heading into the NEC conference tournament and his best chance in four years to get his arms around that NEC championship trophy.

Hernandez being checked out by the LIU trainers after dislocating his wrist in the game vs John Jay last season. (Photo: Bob Dea)

That was until a freak wrist injury in the second half of the Blackbirds’ season opener victory against Division III John Jay College, cost him the rest of the season and left him watching from the bench. 

After a first-round upset to Robert Morris, LIU Brooklyn let former head coach Jack Perri go and later brought in Kellogg from UMass where he was let go as the head coach after nine seasons.

Now, fast-forward several months to the present, as another college hoops season gets set to begin and with it, the intertwining of a head coach beginning anew and a player who wants nothing more than to go out on top.

This past Wednesday, both arrived at Brooklyn’s own Barclays Center, the annual home of NEC Basketball Social Media Day to christen the new season, their one and only together.

I think things have gone very well,” said Kellogg of his first few months at the helm. “I thought the leadership with some of the older guys has been really good with Joel and some of the guys that had been here. And the transition has been somewhat smooth for us.”

Kellogg has seen his fair share of success as both a player and head coach while at UMass. He played in the NCAA tournament in all four years from 1991-95 while playing for Hall of Fame coach John Calipari, going as far as the Elite Eight his senior year. As a head coach, he took his Minutemen team to the NCAA tournament as an at-large six-seed in 2014 and went to the second round. He compiled a 155-137 record while at UMass with three straight 20-win plus seasons from 2011-14.

Yet for Hernandez, he has been part of a gradual rebuild since his arrival to LIU Brooklyn. He didn’t start a single game in his 17 games as a freshman in which LIU won only nine games. The following season as a sophomore, Hernandez finally cracked the starting lineup midway through and nearly doubled his scoring average to eight points per game on a team that won only 12 games. His breakout year came in his junior season in which he started in all but one game that season and averaged over 12 points and 6 rebounds per game on a team that finished one game over .500.

The rebuild was to be completed last season, as he was ready to take an even bigger step along with fellow seniors Jerome Frink and Iverson Fleming, but his season literally came crashing down when he landed oddly on his wrist on a missed dunk on an alley-oop attempt on that Nov. 11 game and suffered a dislocation.

“In the beginning, it was very disappointing,” Hernandez said of his injury last season. “But my family brought it on to me to take it as a learning experience.”

Now, a year later, Hernandez gets a second chance at his final college season but with a new coach who plans on playing a much faster style of play than what the team had been playing in the past couple of seasons. An offense more geared to their strength, which lies within their backcourt and their depth at the guard positions.

Yet, as the most tenured Blackbird on the roster,  Hernandez is well aware of his role and what his new head coach is looking to get out of him.

“I think I’m going to have a pretty big role,” Hernandez said. “Pretty much be the mature leader of the group, leading the young guys in the right direction, making big plays, make plays for my teammates or for myself, things like that.”

Hernandez has changed his number from 11 to 0 for his final season in a Blackbird uniform. (Photo: Joel Hernandez/Twitter @Ho11ywood_)

“We’re looking for him to be a team leader,” said Kellogg. “The guy that can pull some of the younger guys. He is going to have to make tough plays for us when things aren’t going well, we are going to have to rely on him to put a basket in, come up with a big defensive stop, a defensive rebound. I think his role is going to be somewhat expanded from maybe just an around the rim guy or an extra possession guy. I think he is going to be a guy that can make plays for his teammates. I’m excited to coach him. I think he’s got some untapped potential that could be great for us.”

LIU Brooklyn was picked to finish sixth in the NEC Preseason Coaches Poll during the NEC Basketball Social Media Day proceedings. Yet, the lower than expected prediction didn’t put a damper on their new head coach’s outlook for his new squad.

“I think we are going to be a fun team to watch,” said Kellogg. “We are going to be fun and I have a good indication that we are going to win some basketball games and hopefully we can win the right amount at the right time to put ourselves in a good position.”

For Kellogg and Hernandez, it means winning enough games to make this a special first season for the head coach and a special final season for the departing senior and make it quite a telling tale for both men.

(Featured Image Photos: LIU Athletics/Youtube; Bob Dea)

Nelson Castillo covers the Northeast Conference as well as LIU Brooklyn basketball for NYC Buckets. You can follow Nelson on Twitter @NelCastNY. Nelson previously was the founder of Blackbirds Hoops Journal blog following LIU hoops and the NEC. You can read all of Nelson’s posts here

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