Meet the Bad News Blackbirds!
Brooklyn’s lone hope in the NCAA championship tournament is the scrappy 15th-seeded team from Long Island University, a tight-knit band of transplants from across the globe, united in their love for the game — and Junior’s cheesecake.
No Blackbird is borough born — in fact, the closest any player comes to a Brooklyn address is Bay Shore, Long Island. No matter though, this squad isn’t afraid to crow — and it’s ready to carry the weight of its host borough on its wings this week, when it faces the second-seed University of North Carolina (26-7) on March 18 in Charlotte, N.C., in the first round of the nation’s premier college basketball tournament.
“Nobody expects us to make a lot of noise — but I think they better watch out,” said senior guard David Hicks, a Minnesotan by birth. “We have a lot of explosiveness that comes from all angles.”
Indeed, unlike the Bad News Bears, this team’s got skills.
As of March 10, the Blackbirds (27-5) were ranked fourth in the nation in scoring offense — ahead of powerhouses such as Kansas and Duke, and ninth overall in won-lost percentage, according to NCAA statistics.
In addition to its balanced and relentless scoring attack, LIU is also disciplined on defense, second only to Ohio State in allowing opponents a trip to the foul line.
No one player is above the team, and the stats bear that out: the Blackbirds have six players averaging between 7.7 and 12.9 points per game.
That’s a point of pride for ninth-year LIU Coach Jim Ferry, a Queens native whose East New York-born father was a transit cop.
“We’re checking the egos at the door,” he said.
When he took over the squad, Ferry said he was forced to recruit outside the borough simply because elite players had no interest in coming to LIU.
“They didn’t look at LIU in Brooklyn as something that was special,” he said.
So he looked for talent in places such as Texas, Maryland, Canada, and even Switzerland, where he landed 6-10 senior forward Milos Nikolic.
But with the ascendancy of the borough — and the basketball program — recruiting has just gotten a lot easier.
“It’s all coming together,” Ferry said. “We sell Brooklyn now.”
The single-elimination tournament pits the top 64 teams in the nation against each other at neutral sites throughout the country, culminating in Houston for the Final Four.
It’s the first time LIU, whose main campus is located at DeKalb Avenue and Flatbush Avenue Extension, has made the Big Dance since 1997, when it bowed out in the first round to Villanova.
This year, the team earned an automatic bid after claiming the Northeast Conference title with a gutty overtime win last Wednesday against Robert Morris, a Pittsburgh squad that held the title for the past two years.
One thing missing when it hits the road this week will be its pre-game home ritual of eating at Junior’s, the legendary Flatbush Avenue diner. “The cheesecake is good,” offered sophomore forward Jamal Olasewere.
When the team hits the court on Friday, look for:
• Julian Boyd: The 6-7 sophomore forward from San Antonio, Tex., is a poor-man’s Blake Griffin, a scoring and rebounding machine who’s mild-mannered off the court, but a beast come game time. The conference rookie of the year had to sit out last season with a congenital heart condition called noncompaction cardiomyopathy — an enlarged heart that prevents proper blood flow. Since being cleared to play this year, he’s even more focused.
“You know that saying, ‘Play every game like it’s your last?’ For me, that’s a true statement. I’ve been shown it can be taken away forever.”
• C.J Garner: The 5-10 sophomore guard from Silver Spring, Md., nicknamed “June G,” is silky smooth on the court. Garner’s the only player who has previous tournament experience, as he’s a transfer from the University of South Alabama, which danced in 2008. “Brooklyn gives you an edge,” he noted.
• Kyle Johnson: A polished 6-5 guard from Toronto, Johnson isn’t fazed by the bright lights or the big borough. “It’s just basketball. I just come out and play.”
• Jamal Olasewere: The 6-7 sophomore forward from Silver Spring, Md., has come on like a bull during the conference championship game, dropping a career high 31 points. The momentum should continue against the Tar Heels. “We’re ready to put Brooklyn on our backs,” he said.
• David Hicks: The 6-1 senior guard nicknamed “Dai-Dai” is from Minnesota, but he’s got Hollywood written all over him. No disrespect to Stephon Marbury, or even Lenny Wilkens, but Hicks hasn’t got a favorite Brooklyn ballplayer.
“Except for me, and the fellas,” he said, flashing a million-dollar smile.
• Michael Culpo: A 6-1 junior guard from Pittsfield, Mass., with keen court vision and a sweet shooting touch.
“We’re going into this like it’s any other game,” said Culpo, who was overjoyed to arrive in Brooklyn, where there are “more people on the street at 1 am than there are in Pittsfield at 1 pm.”
Don’t hold it against Culpo that he’s a Celtics fan.
Catch the game on Friday, March 18 on CBS at 7:15 pm.