After a six-game losing streak to start the season, the LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds have turned things around and won their last four games, including avenging one of their losses by winning at New Hampshire on Monday.
Yes, the competition has been a bit easier, but it’s still a stunning turnaround for a team that appeared to be stumbling to find any sense of cohesion during the first two and a half weeks of the season. The turnaround has been multifacted and can tell us a lot about the team LIU can be during a wide open NEC race.
For the analysis of how LIU has turned things around I threw away two of the Blackbirds’ six losses. It’s pretty clear by now that St. John’s and Temple are unlike any other teams that the Blackbirds will see this season. Those losses were completely expected. Instead, I compared the four other losses (at Saint Joseph’s, at Stony Brook, vs. New Hampshire and vs. Lehigh) to the current four-game winning streak (at Maine, vs. NJIT, vs. FIU, at New Hampshire). What a difference a few weeks makes!
The competition is slightly easier (average KenPom ranking of the four losses is 172, the four wins is 268), but the changes on the offensive end have been impressive. LIU has scored an average of 102.9 points per 100 possessions during the four victories, after averaging 92.5 points per 100 possessions during those four losses. Most of the change can be attributed to better shooting.
Whether the uptick in shooting is sustainable is a completely different question. The Blackbirds have shot much better at the rim during the winning streak (59% vs. 47%), which can be partially attributed to not having to face rim protectors such as SBU’s Jameel Warney or Lehigh’s Jesse Chuku. Those players aren’t going to be around during NEC play either. At 75.4″ inches in average height according to KenPom the Blackbirds are only 1.4″ shorter than the tallest NEC team (Robert Morris). Sacred Heart and St. Francis Brooklyn are the only NEC teams that rank in the top half of college basketball in block percentage. Height is at a premium in college basketball, so most NEC teams don’t have it and that should make it easier for LIU to score near the rim.
The other piece of the shooting equation though is one that’s much less convincing. After shooting a terrible 27% from three during those four losses, the Blackbirds are shooting 42% during the four-game winning streak. That 15 percentage point bump is the difference between being one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country and one of the best. LIU is shooting fewer threes during in those wins, so it might be that some are of higher quality, but that big of a jump seems somewhat unsustainable and the Blackbirds are going to need to find other ways to score.
And thankfully Jack Perri has one. For years the LIU system has been predicated on forcing referees to blow the whistle. Early in the season it wasn’t happening, but lately LIU has been getting to the line more frequently. In each of the past four games Perri’s team has had a free throw rate of at least 40. Elvar Fridriksson is becoming more aggressive as he settles into his role as LIU’s starting point guard and when not in foul trouble Nura Zanna has been the burly frontcourt presence the Blackbirds were counting on. LIU currently ranks 280th nationally in free throw rate, but that should rise as the Blackbirds play more teams their own size and continue going right at their opponents.
Why does LIU need to make shots and get to the free throw line? Well, the Blackbirds just aren’t going to generate that many extra possessions on the glass. There’s no dominant offensive rebounder on the roster and eschewing those extra chances means the margin for error is slimmer, so this is how Perri’s team will have to capitalize.
The defense the past four games have been a revelation. During the four-game winning streak LIU has allowed an average of 87.9 points per 100 possessions. That’s outstanding defensive work and mind-boggling heights for LIU in particular.
How have they done it? By staying true to LIU principles. Another classic Blackbirds basketball tenet is they hate to foul. Foul trouble is a bugaboo, but free throws also give your opponent extra opportunities. LIU is taking those free ones away allowing a free throw rate of just 30. At the Barclays Center last Thursday FIU attempted only nine free throws in the entire game. If a team can’t get to the line it limits their ability to score.
The other way LIU has really been limiting opponents has been by crashing the defensive glass. While there’s no dominant rebounder on the Blackbirds’ roster, they’ve made up for it on the defensive end by sending more people to the backboards. Zanna and Landon Atterberry are leading the charge, but nine Blackbirds have defensive rebound rates above 10%. When everyone is buying into a rebounding by committee mentality it makes it easier to prevent second-chance opportunities.
LIU’s avoidance of fouls does mean that opponents will never turn the ball over much against the Blackbirds. They’ll have to grind out every possession, but even if their opponents’ three-point percentage rises a bit (it’s currently 28%, 30th in the country), the defense should be passable during NEC play.
Now that we’re 10 games into the season I also ran some possession oriented plus-minus numbers on some of the Blackbirds’ personnel to see what makes them tick. The numbers below are for full season, but I think help illustrate how certain players are keys to LIU’s season.
Nura Zanna: The 6’7″ redshirt freshman has been as advertised. The Blackbirds are 27.8 points better per 100 possessions when he’s on the court. A lot of that actually comes on the defensive end, where he’s able to anchor the back line and keep bigger bodies from finding as much space to operate as they have in the past. Zanna is the closest thing the Blackbirds have to a center on the roster right now. (That’s also why Glenn Feidanga needs to get and stay healthy.) Still, it’s been an impressive start to the season for Zanna and he should only get better.
Elvar Fridriksson: Incredibly Fridriksson has been even better, as the Blackbirds have been 33.1 points per 100 possessions better when he’s been on the court versus off of it. This is partly because the Blackbirds really don’t have a capable sub for their Icelandic point guard. Jamil Hood is still developing into that role and Iverson Fleming is more combo-guard than point right now. Fridriksson has really begun to assert himself during the winning streak. Against UNH on Monday he used 32% of LIU’s possessions when he was on the court — which was a lot. He’s had his ups and downs, but they’ve mostly been up and even Fridriksson bad nights are useful. The biggest thing for him will be limiting turnovers during NEC play under heavy pressure.
Martin Hermannsson: Hermannsson’s offensive splits are awful right now because he took a bit of time to get his footing. But his turnaround has coincided with LIU being a more competitive basketball team. During the past three games Hermannsson has scored more than a point per possession, while being one of LIU’s main offensive threats. His continued development, especially from three where he’s only 9-35 (26%) this season, could be where the Blackbirds find the extra offensive push that carries them through NEC play.
Landon Atterberry: He’s forced to play out of position when Zanna and Feidanga are unavailable and it shows. Best cast for Atterberry is that one or the other is available and he can stretch defenses and help on the defensive glass against smaller NEC power forwards.
Gerrell Martin: One of the interesting things about this season for LIU is that Martin hasn’t had to take on a huge amount of the offense, which was the expectation coming in. Instead he’s let the pieces develop around him. Martin took only one shot in LIU’s victory at UNH. What’s also interesting is that Martin is developing into one of the best defenders in the NEC. The Blackbirds are 16.9 points per 100 possessions better defensively when he’s on the court. That’s an incredible number and shows how the 6’3″ senior can really get up into perimeter players and cause issues.
The LIU bench in general has issues on the defensive end. No matter what player you’re talking about the defense gets worse when they’re in the game. It’s tough, because players such as Joel Hernandez often are playing out of position when they come in, but Perri has to find a way to maximize their value. The offense has actually been good when Iverson Fleming is in the game, but the hit the defense takes when he’s in isn’t worth the trade. It’ll be important for Fleming to improve his defensive awareness, as he’ll probably be LIU’s seventh or eighth guy off the bench this season.
Too small a sample: Glenn Feidanga (but he’s important, I promise).
Overall, LIU’s four-game winning streak does seem to contain a lot of positive notes that can help Jack Perri’s team as they move into NEC play in the new year. The competition they’ve played during the winning streak (average KenPom of 268), is quite similar to the competition they’ll see come NEC play (average KenPom 243). This young Blackbirds team has a chance to be much better than the preseason projections expected.