Balanced Blackbirds Perched Atop the NEC

February 2nd, 2011
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The Northeast Conference annually has a race that rivals that of many leagues in terms of competitiveness for the simple fact that not everyone qualifies for the conference tournament. With just the top eight teams eligible for the event any level of separation that a team can gain is a valuable benefit. Such is the case of Jim Ferry's Long Island Blackbirds, who have won 10 of their last 11 games in jumping to an 8-2 record in conference play (16-5 overall). The key offensively for this group has been balance, with five players averaging between 10 and 12 points per game, and two others right around the 8 ppg mark.

"The overall unselfishness of the group has been the key," remarked Coach Ferry. "Guys have committed to doing what's best for the team and that makes us difficult to guard."

Sophomore Jamal Olasewere leads LIU in scoring with an average of 12.1 points while also grabbing 6.2 rebounds per game, and with classmate Kenny Onyechi was part of a frontcourt that last season navigated the loss of Julian Boyd to a heart ailment. Boyd's return has been a welcome addition for LIU, as the 2008-09 NEC Rookie of the Year leads the team with an average of 8.4 rebounds per game to go along with 11.8 points and 50.3% shooting from the field. He recently put forth the best performance of his career from a statistical standpoint with 34 points and 16 rebounds in the Blackbirds' win over FDU, a point total that Coach Ferry noted is rare for this team given their balance (the previous high in a single game was David Hicks' 24 in a loss at Saint Francis (PA) on January 22nd).

Adding Boyd to a young but talented frontcourt rotation could have been an issue, and truth be told such a move would prove combustible for teams who lack chemistry and maturity. But that hasn't been the case for LIU, and the player would could have made the biggest stink about the change in role has been vital to that being the case.

"It was the toughest for Kenny (Onyechi), who started and was a member of the All-Rookie Team last year, but he's had no problem with Boyd's return," said Ferry. Onyechi's minutes have dropped more than seven minutes per game but he still averaging 7.6 points (8.1 last year) and 4.8 rebounds (4.7) per game in 17.7 minutes of action. Despite the youth of this group they've displayed the maturity of seasoned veterans and the reward has come in the form of victories.

In the backcourt there's a good mixture consisting of experience (Kyle Johnson and David Hicks) and newcomers who consistently get the job done. Johnson and Hicks both average double figures in points per game, with Johnson doing a good job on the boards in LIU's three-guard lineup with an average of 5.6 rebounds per game. With a rotation that features numerous underclassmen (and a transfer) their leadership cannot be measured solely by numbers. But the two newcomers at the point have played very well and their contrasting styles make for a tough scout when opponents prepare for LIU.

South Alabama transfer C.J. Garner is the scorer of the two, averaging 10.1 points per game while also handing out 3.5 assists, while freshman Jason Brickman is the more "traditional" of the two with a team-high 4.6 assists per game. "The biggest key for us is that we have two point guards that really get others involved and it's contagious," said Coach Ferry of the role that Garner and Brickman have had on the LIU offense. The Blackbirds play a faster tempo, averaging 75.5 possessions per game, a number that leads the NEC and ranks 9th nationally. And when you can make good use of those possessions, which LIU does by shooting a league-best 46.3% from the field and 1.08 points per possession, you're going to be tough to beat.

But if there would be a concern as LIU approaches the stretch run it would have to be the foul line, where the Blackbirds have struggled with a percentage of 65.2% (10th in the NEC) despite leading the nation in free throw attempts and ranking third in free throw rate (51.8%). "We lead the country in getting to the line," remarked Coach Ferry. "But we have to shoot it better than 65%." But if LIU could figure out their roles as well as they have to this point in the season one would have to imagine that they'll figure out the charity stripe as the season wears on. And given the youth of this roster, figuring things out this year could set the Long Island program up for a run not seen in Brooklyn since the late-90s when Charles Jones and company made back-to-back postseason appearances in 1997 and 1998.

Thursday's NEC Schedule
7:00 PM CCSU at Saint Francis (PA)
7:00 PM Sacred Heart at Long Island
7:00 PM Monmouth at Mount St. Mary's
7:00 PM Fairleigh Dickinson at Wagner
7:00 PM Quinnipiac at St. Francis (NY)
7:00 PM Bryant at Robert Morris