BROOKLYN – LIU Brooklyn has passed the eye test as NEC contenders pretty much all season long, but alas that only works in multi-bid conferences when you’re canvasing for an at-large handout from the NCAA Selection Committee.
In one-bid leagues, it’s just the cold, hard, facts, ma’am, and the bottom line is the Blackbirds looked about as far from being NEC contenders as the local weathermen were in their forecasts back on Jan. 23, when LIU and St. Francis Brooklyn played on despite travel bans and two feet of snow outside.
In retrospect, the Blackbirds wished they hadn’t, all their offensive weapons posting just 0.67 points per possession in a 64-49 at the WRAC that pushed their NEC record to 3-5 and leaving a large doubt whether LIU Brooklyn would even qualify for the NEC Tournament, let alone win it.
Three weeks later, those fears are long gone, and that raw potential is starting to be transformed in reality, as LIU Brooklyn avenged that earlier season defeat and never trailed Monday afternoon on national television in a comprehensive 82-67 victory over rival St. Francis Brooklyn at the Pope Center in Brooklyn Heights
“It was the biggest game, but only because it was our next game,” LIU Brooklyn coach Jack Perri said. “That’s the reality of it. We’re starting to play the way we envisioned our guys playing. That’s two games in a row, and we want to keep going in the right direction. That was a pretty comprehensive effort, both offensively and defensively. They’ve been shooting lights out at home.”
Because they play at the fastest tempo in the NEC, it was easy to point out the LIU Brooklyn defense being the problem, and it hasn’t been great at times for the Blackbirds (13-12, 7-7). But the offense didn’t just let them down against the Terriers, it also struggled mightily in home losses to Robert Morris and Saint Francis U. and a road blowout defeat at Mount St. Mary’s.
Those days appear to be behind them (for now), as LIU Brooklyn put up 1.21 ppp against one of the league’s best defenses on their home floor. Martin Hermannsson (more on him below) made his case for a first-team All-NEC spot with a nearly flawless performance, scoring 19 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 5 steals, and – the kicker – 0 turnovers.
“We had four losses in a row against this team, and I’ve never beaten the other Icelandic guys (SFC’s Dagur Jonsson and Gunnar Olafsson), so I was really focused before the game and I wanted this one really badly,” Hermansson said. “We had like 15 people in the stands to see this game, so it was a lot of fun.”
Today in NEC signs, er, flags. Shouldn’t this be up on wall in Brooklyn gyms by now? pic.twitter.com/2fOUXgPqFL
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) February 15, 2016
With Aakim Saintil struggling with his shot, the Blackbirds showed their depth with Joel Hernandez scoring 15 points (7-9 FG) and Jerome Frink adding a quiet 15 and 7.
LIU Brooklyn has posted more than 1.00 ppp in every contest since that humbling St. Francis Brooklyn defeat on Jan. 23, and if they continue that (they face stiff tests this weekend in Pennsylvania against St. Francis U. and Robert Morris), the Blackbirds are legitimate NEC contenders, even if they have to go on the road for three straight games to do it in a couple of weeks.
“I thought they were really aggressive and they made shots,” St. Francis Brooklyn coach Glenn Braica said. “They didn’t in the first game, but that happens. Give them credit, they came out with a chip on their shoulder and they played really well.”
A photo posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on
What else did we learn on another snowy afternoon in Brooklyn?:
1) St. Francis Brooklyn does not look like contenders
The Terriers still have an odd combination as a team that depends on the three-pointer (24th most attempted nationally by percentage), but doesn’t shoot it well at all (30.1% overall, 31.3% in NEC play, 9th of 10 teams). Monday, they were 6-25 and actually got a pretty big boost from Jon Doss who was 3-5 after shooting 1 for his last 23 over eight games.
Having Tyreek Jewell in foul trouble (he was held to 5 points) didn’t help at all, and Yunus Hopkinson was 1-8, but if the Terriers (11-16, 7-7) are going to do damage in the NEC Tournament, they will need guys like Chris Hooper (15 pts. in 21 minutes) and Antonio Jenifer (1-5 from three) to do some damage in the paint, where St. Francis Brooklyn was outscored 32-20 Monday.
“It’s disappointing, but it’s understandable the way we’ve played. We’ve slipped a little bit lately,” Braica said. “This time of year is tough because you don’t have a lot of practice time. Our guys have to retain focus in different ways without having as many practices as we’ve liked, and we’re struggling with that right now.”
2) Martin Hermannsson continues his rise
There are many ways in which Hermannsson is much better this year than last (especially of late), but you can look no further than turnover rate. The raw numbers aren’t that much different (70 last year, 55 this season in four less games), but his rate is down from 24% in 2014-15 to 16% in 2015-16 and dropping with no turnovers Monday.
Hermannsson has also scored at least 17 points in each of his last six games (his 5 steals Monday tied a career high) and is shooting 89% for the line. What makes that last number doubly impressive is his free throw rate (he has 55 attempts in his last six games). His shooting is still not his strength, but his field goal % is up from 38.9% a year ago to 44.8% and his three-point percentage has gone from 27.5% to 37.8%.
He also seems more confident in the role of floor leader, a big reason for LIU Brooklyn’s improvement. Hermannsson was happy that the game was a 1 p.m. start (a reasonable 6 p.m. in Iceland) and on ESPNU for his family to watch. He started his press conference by joking, “You guys don’t mind if I speak in Icelandic, do you?”
How do you say All-NEC in Icelandic, Martin?
“We’ve been talking about this all year that we want to peak at the end,” Hermannsson said. “Robert Morris did this last year. They were up and down all season and they peaked at the end, and that’s what we want to do this season.”
— LIU Basketball (@LIUBasketball) February 15, 2016
3) Postseason is coming
Normally you can start to get a read by this time of the season who might play who and where and start to get a little but of a preliminary scout together, but good luck this season. The positive news for both these teams is with Bryant’s struggles both are almost mathematically assured of at least being in the postseason no matter what happens down the stretch.
But after that? Who knows?
There are scenarios that could see either of these teams at home (although based on recent form, the edge would certainly have to go to LIU Brooklyn at the moment). However, is home-court advantage really all that important this season?
Certainly, a six or seven-hour bus ride to Altoona or Moon Township is not a whole lot of fun, and our instincts tell us that home-court is extremely important, but after Monday’s game NEC home teams are only 37-33 in conference play (obviously in this matchup they were 0-2), and it really wouldn’t be completely shocking if any of the eight teams that qualify for the NEC Tournament represents them in the NCAA Tournament (and likely in Dayton again).
“That (a home NEC game) is what we want, but I’m really not focused on that,” Perri said. “The reality is that we have Robert Morris next and we’ll have to get on a bus, and try to avenge a home loss.”
A photo posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on