LIU punched its ticket to the big dance for the third consecutive year on Tuesday night. (John Minchillo/AP)
NEW YORK – In the heart of Brooklyn, where the city game thrives amid the hipsters and cheese shops, Long Island University has built itself into New York City’s most consistent basketball program. And frankly, it’s not even close.
In a rollicking band box of a gym – not an arena, a gym – that smelled of chlorine from the nearby rec center pool, No. 3 seed LIU rolled No. 5 Mount St. Mary’s, 91-70, for the NEC title Tuesday night.
The students stormed the floor at the Wellness and Recreation Center – affectionately known as the WRAC –- to celebrate the school’s third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.
LIU’s blowout win highlighted the school’s unconventional way of winning big in New York – recruiting kids far away from the five boroughs. Only two of LIU's players are from New York.
“As far as consistency, we’ve got it to that point now,” said first-year LIU Coach Jack Perri, an assistant here for seven years prior to getting the head job.
Perri dropped his voice to a whisper in the halls of the WRAC after the game, explaining that the talent in New York leaves so early for prep schools that it’s hard to recruit the city. But even when he does, there are layers of schools ahead of him. Coaches think their stars are MAAC players, and LIU can’t seem to beat Iona and Manhattan for talent.
“I’m not going to take your fourth or fifth best player if I can go to Maryland or Texas and I can get someone that’s equivalent to one of your better kids,” Perri said.
LIU juniors C.J. Garner and Jamal Olasewere, teammates from Springbrook High in Maryland, powered the Blackbirds to their latest NEC title. Garner, a transfer from South Alabama, scored a career-high 31 points on 13-for-17 shooting. Olasewere, the NEC Player of the Year, chipped in 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting.
They epitomize how programs make their own luck in recruiting. Xavier recruited Olasewere and had him on an official visit, but never offered. He came to LIU and recruited his old teammate Garner to join him.
Tony Murray, an assistant coach at Springbrook who won two state titles with the duo, predicted to Perri, “You’re not going to lose a game with those two guys.” Perri laughed at the recollection – he wasn’t far off. They’ve combined for three league titles, an unprecedented run in the NEC.
“Ever since last year, history has been on the board,” Olasewere said. “What we wanted to do was come back and create history.”
LIU’s historic run is really rooted in Texas, arcane NCAA rules and a heaping helping of desperation.
Seven of the LIU players hail from Texas, which former LIU coach Jim Ferry says was a byproduct of the program’s immediate need for talent when he took over in 2002. Because of the long-gone 5-8 scholarship rule, he needed to fill spots that spring. So Perry went to an event for available seniors in Texas. Division I coaches searching for players in the spring of their senior year are usually as successful as a happy hour patron searching for a mate at last call. But Ferry found a dynamic that ended up driving the LIU program.
“It’s a lot like up here, some of the local kids want to get away,” Ferry said. “It’s not cool to stand up to microphone and say you’re going to LIU. It’s the same for local kids down there going to Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston State. Even though it’s the same level. The pool down there is large for lower level Division I.”
The Texas connection began with San Antonio native Brandon Thomas, a late grab who starred for two years at LIU before transferring to UMass in 2005. It kept going from there. There are three current Blackbirds from San Antonio, including Jason Brickman, the transcendent passer who leads the country in assists and Julian Boyd, the Player of the Year in the NEC last year who tore his ACL in December and missed the rest of the season.
LIU began building a brand in Texas. One selling point: a hip zip code - LIU plays four games per year at Barclays Center, and New York's consummate basketball fan Spike Lee is a reliable presence at the NEC tournament (he attended the quarterfinal this year, but had to miss the final).
The other selling point: the play itself. The school finished No. 6 nationally in scoring this year and has consistently finished in the top 10 in that category. This player-friendly style has meant consistent success, and it’s a style that Mount St. Mary’s Coach Jamion Christian said he looked at to model his program.
“They have a formula they really like, and they’ve stuck with it,” he said. “Style wise, they’re hard to stop.”
And while the route may be circuitous, the results are hard to argue. The city game is thriving, but thanks more to the city’s aura than its natural basketball resources.
“Everyone knows us in Texas,” Perri said. “It’s considered a pretty big deal if we’re recruiting you.”
A few more league titles, and New York kids may start feeling the same way.