In the previous 72 hours, I embarked on a two games in three days journey following LIU Brooklyn men’s basketball as they returned back to the tri-state area after playing their previous four games in Jamaica (the Caribbean island, not Queens) and up in the New England area at UMass-Lowell and Brown where they went just 1-3 and entered the week with a bit of a disappointing 2-5 record.
On Tuesday, I drove to Newark and made my first-ever trip to NJIT’s brand-new Wellness and Events Center where the Blackbirds met up with the Highlanders and took a 73-69 defeat to extend their losing streak to three and drop them to 2-6 overall.
Last night, LIU Brooklyn returned home for the first time in over two weeks and played just their second home game of the season. The Blackbirds met up with the Hartford Hawks for the second time this season, who they narrowly defeated in their second game at the Jamaica Classic, 86-84 on Nov. 18. Once again, it came down to the final seconds and LIU again escaped with the victory, this time by a 79-78 score thanks to a Joel Hernandez free throw with 0.6 seconds left.
With two games to dissect, instead of the usual three thoughts, here are five thoughts I have after watching these two games this week.
1. LIU Brooklyn has a lot of work to do before NEC play.
At 3-6 exiting the month of November, it is safe to say this record was not what LIU Brooklyn head coach Derek Kellogg was hoping for to start off with his new team. Kellogg admittedly packed in the games in the first month of the season, leaving little time for practice once the season started. LIU is the only NEC team to end November having already played nine games. No other NEC team has played more than seven, while a team like Wagner has played just five games so far.
Now with December here, LIU has just four more non-conference games remaining over the next three weeks and three of those are at home, putting a halt to quite a traveling grind. Kellogg will soon have the practice time to fix some of the early problems his team has been having.
“It feels really good to be home,” Kellogg said after the home win versus Hartford. “Now we get a nice break where we’re home. I love coaching and I think we get a good home-court advantage here. We have a couple of games at Barclays and then we hit our conference schedule. I’m excited to come to work with these guys. I think we still have a little bit of an upswing in us. I don’t think we are totally clicking, definitely not on the defensive end of the floor.”
After their game against Hartford Thursday night, although LIU is ninth in the nation in adjusted tempo, they are just 287th in offensive efficiency and are 305th nationally in defensive efficiency. There is plenty of work to do for this LIU team before NEC play begins.
2. NJIT has a good team that will bring excitement to their new home this season.
NJIT opened its new arena, the Wellness and Events Center this season and so far, it has been home sweet home for the Highlanders. They are 4-1 in their new home with their only loss there coming in the grand opening versus Wagner.
Their other two losses so far have come against Seton Hall and West Virginia, which isn’t a surprise. They have a chance of entering Atlantic Sun play with an over-.500 record with more home games coming up against UMass-Lowell, Fairleigh Dickinson, and Division III Bryn Athyn.
One Highlander off to a nice start is senior forward Abdul Lewis. Against LIU Brooklyn, he went off for 23 points and 18 rebounds. He has three double-doubles thus far this season and currently is averaging a double-double at 10 points and 10 rebounds per game.
3. Julian Batts can shoot the ball — when he decides to finally shoot.
Sophomore Julian Batts has already had a tale of two seasons through his first nine games of 2017. In the first six games, Batts scored 25 points total and took just 26 shots in that span even though he was averaging over 22 mpg. Against UMass-Lowell, he finished 0-3, zero points in 24 minutes. He just wasn’t doing enough to warrant the playing time he was getting.
Since the UMass-Lowell game, it has been a different Julian Batts on the court for LIU Brooklyn. In the last three games, including the ones against NJIT and Hartford, Batts is shooting over 53 percent on 25 shot attempts and is 5-10 from three, averaging 16.6 ppg.
“I told him, you come into the gym more than probably anybody in the country, so why don’t you shot the ball,” Kellogg said. “He’s got a nice feel for the game. He knows how to play. He really has a calming influence on the team.”
Batts sudden offensive emergence should only enhance an LIU offense which is currently first in the NEC in scoring offense at 78 ppg and second in the NEC in offensive efficiency.
4. Hartford might be heading for a long season.
Although Hartford left Brooklyn at 3-5 on the season, they Hawks are 1-4 against NEC teams thus far including two losses to LIU Brooklyn by a combined three points. Their only win against the NEC came in the season opener in a one-point win at home against the now-emerging Central Connecticut State. Their 3-5 record has come against a non-conference strength of schedule that KenPom has ranked 343rd in the nation.
KenPom projects just two more wins for the Hawks in non-conference play and even then, the projections only give them just slightly better than 50/50 odds to win those games.
Hartford has some scorers in John Carroll (17.8 ppg) and Jason Dunne (17.0 ppg) but they are below 315 in the nation in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Unless things don’t dramatically improve on both ends of the floor for the Hawks, they could be in for another long season.
5. Is the Hartford game the one that gets LIU’s Joel Hernandez going?
I predicted redshirt senior Joel Hernandez was in for a big season in 2017-18. Although he isn’t having a bad season thus far if you look at his numbers after nine games, he was definitely having a frustrating one up to this point.
The officiating whistle has not been kind on Hernandez in the early going. Prior to last night, he had been whistled for four or more fouls in half of his games played, shortening his playing time to around 27 mpg. Last night, he played a season-high 37 minutes and naturally, he finished with a career-high tying 27 points and a season-high 10 rebounds for his first double-double of the season.
“He has a scorer’s mentality but if he can get away from just worrying about that so much it will come and you’ll get twenty-seven and ten,” said Kellogg on Hernandez. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with him because I think he is one of the guys that can be a potential guy that can be one of the better players in the conference and if we are going to do well when that comes. I don’t think it is a question we need him to play well.”
For LIU Brooklyn to have any chance to go deep this season, they are going to need Hernandez, Raiquan Clark and Jashaun Agosto to play a lot of minutes and stay out of foul trouble and put up a decent amount of points as they have done so in the first month of the season.