LIU Brooklyn in an Awkward Spot Without Joel Hernandez

LIU Brooklyn was constructed as a win-now group for the 2016-17 season, even after Martin Hermannsson decided to take his talents to the European professional leagues in July.

The program, which contained a senior foursome that included star power forward Jerome Frink and four-year senior Joel Hernandez, were considered by some league insiders as legitimate Northeast Conference contenders. At least that was the general consensus of the league’s coaches, as the Blackbirds finished tied for fourth in the NEC coach’s preseason poll back in October.

For me, the inexperience of LIU’s backcourt was too much to overcome; therefore I hedged my bet with a sixth place prediction. Other prognosticators, most notably Sports Illustrated’s Dan Hanner, thought the loss of Hermannsson and his superb 118.4 offensive rating was reason enough to forecast that LIU would miss the NEC playoffs entirely.

While Hanner’s projection could be construed as extreme, there still were a wide range of possible outcomes with Jack Perri’s group, yet all of those educated guesses assumed Hernandez would be an integral part of the team and LIU’s second leading scorer. Now, with the versatile guard no longer in the team’s plans this season thanks to a dislocated thumb, will this severely impact LIU Brooklyn’s upside?

This is a difficult question to answer, because we don’t know how good Hernandez was going to be. As a junior, the 6-foot-3 guard statistically was a league average player against NEC opposition, as the numbers below (from John Templon) illustrate:

  • With Hernandez on the court: 105.3 points scored per 100 possessions, 106.5 points allowed per 100 possessions
  • With Hernandez off the court: 104.6 points scored per 100 possessions, 103.3 points allowed per 100 possessions
Losing Joel Hernandez is a big blow to LIU's NEC title hopes (Photo Credit: LIU Brooklyn Athletics)
Losing Joel Hernandez is a big blow to LIU’s NEC title hopes (Photo Credit: LIU Brooklyn Athletics)

Again, according to reports from the LIU coaching staff this offseason Hernandez was expected to emerge as an all-league performer, so it’s difficult to ascertain what his true impact would have been. Given the progression of other NEC seniors in recent seasons—Tevin Falzon, Ben Millaud-Meunier, Ronnie Drinnon and Joe O’Shea just to name a few—it was reasonable to expect a sizable increase in Hernandez’s production after posting a respectable 102.4 offensive rating as a junior.

Moving forward, Perri must rely even more on underclassmen to fill minutes around an experienced frontcourt. If Wednesday night’s victory over Loyola (selected 7th in the Patriot League Preseason Coach’s Poll) serves as a blueprint, it’s fair to assume the depth chart shakes out like this for the foreseeable future:

PG: Agosto, Batts
SG: Fleming, Bradley
SG: Frias, Clark
PF: Frink, van Sauers
PF: Zanna, Feidanga

The loss of Hernandez essentially forces Perri to play three smallish guards alongside a frontcourt combination comprised of mainly Frink, Nura Zanna and Julius van Sauers.

In a perfect world, van Sauers could get minutes at the 3, although having the forward fill up the frontcourt depth may be the higher priority. You can bet most NEC coaches will look at attacking LIU’s frontcourt on offense to expose Zanna and Frink’s proclivity to foul. As someone tasked with guarding the other team’s best post option (a.k.a. Marcel Pettway, Mike Aaman, Joe Lopez, Mike Holloway), Zanna and his career foul rate (6.4 fouls committed per 40 minutes) puts Perri in a difficult spot on a game-by-game basis.

With roughly 30 minutes per game available backing up Frink and Zanna, Glenn Feidanga and van Sauers should emerge as the most likely candidates for this time. Perhaps sophomores Kwe Askew and Ganlandou Cisse can step up, but with virtually zero collegiate experience, it’s a safe assumption the LIU coaching staff isn’t comfortable playing them for any consistent period of time.

Furthermore, Perri must now rely on two virtual unknowns at the 3, sophomore Raul Frias and Raiquan Clark, a sophomore walk-on. Before Hernandez’s injury, Frias was most likely targeted as Iverson Fleming’s backup, someone who would come off the bench to make perimeter shots. With Frias at the 3, Perri must run out three guards that are 6-foot-1 or less. Obviously you can get away with those type of lineups in the NEC, yet as Ken Pomeroy has proven, a team’s effective height on the floor correlates well with a team’s overall defense efficiency. And without Hernandez and his versatility at the 1, 2 or 3, the team’s effective height will surely take a hit, as will their ability to keep their opponent’s field goal percentage down.

One of these things must happen to move Frias back to his more natural position at the 2:

  1. Frink and Zanna suddenly avoid foul trouble on a nightly basis, reducing the number of available backup minutes at the 4 and 5
  2. Cisse and/or Askew emerge out of nowhere as competent frontcourt backups allowing van Sauers to play more at the 3
  3. Clark becomes a reliable option at the wing after a productive start to the season off the bench (7 ppg, 3 rpg, 12.5 mpg)

Any one of these things can happen, but herein in lies the problem with Hernandez’s injury—it withers away much of the depth and versatility Perri had at his disposal heading into the season.

You have a razor-thin margin of error after you throw in the uncertainty of having two rookies run the point. Yes, Jashaun Agosto was terrific getting into the lane the other night, but freshmen are known for their inconsistency and wearing down as the season progresses. Without Hernandez as a safety net, several inexperienced pieces must now exceed expectations and Frink must rise as a NEC Player of the Year finalist.

Frink has the talent to pull a Julian Boyd and average 20 ppg, 9 rpg and 1.5 bpg, but he’ll need a very good supporting cast to get LIU back to the NCAA tournament. Just ask Shane Gibson and Ken Horton how difficult it is to carry a team on your back.

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. It’s an unfortunate position to be in if you’re Perri, but the season must go on. Hernandez’s injury may not bump LIU much lower from my original sixth place projection, but there’s no doubt that the Blackbird’s ceiling just got a little lower.

Ryan Peters is a contributor to NYC Buckets and wrote the NEC previews for Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. You can follow Ryan on Twitter here.

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