March Madness isn’t just about the blue bloods of college basketball.
Part of the joy of the tournament each year comes from discovering schools that you never knew existed and falling in love with them for three-to-four days (sometimes longer) before they succumb to higher-seeded, more talented foes.
With that sentiment in mind, meet the Long Island University (LIU) Brooklyn Blackbirds, the No. 16 seed in the West region of this year’s NCAA tournament.
A tall task awaits LIU Brooklyn in Columbus, Ohio, where they take on a perennial title contender in Michigan State. But dismissing the Blackbirds as just another No. 16 seed that will get trucked in the first round would be disrespectful.
LIU Brooklyn has won 52 games and consecutive Northeast Conference titles the past two seasons and owns a 27-game home winning streak—second in Division I only to Kentucky.
So why should the Blackbirds be your March Madness darlings this year?
At 81.9 points/game, LIU Brooklyn possesses the third-highest scoring offense in the country—trailing only Iona (83.3) and North Carolina (82.0)—and their 76.7 possessions per game is second highest. These Blackbirds love to fly.
And as far as college teams go, LIU Brooklyn does not live and die by the three-pointer; just 31 percent of their field-goal attempts this season have come from behind the arc. Rather, what the Blackbirds try to do is push the ball and go hard to the rim at every available opportunity.
LIU Brooklyn’s offense isn’t just high-tempo, it’s highly efficient. As a team, the Blackbirds shoot 47.5 percent from the field (tied for 26th nationally), and their aggression pays further dividends at the charity stripe. Only New Mexico State has attempted more than LIU Brooklyn’s 942 free throws (28.5 per game), and the Blackbirds convert at better than a 73-percent clip.
For further proof of LIU Brooklyn’s offensive prowess, look no further than the play above from its 90–73 victory over Robert Morris in the Northeast Conference title game on March 7. It came in at No. 1 on SportsCenter’s Top 10 later that night.
One of the biggest success stories for the LIU Brooklyn program is, literally, a heart-warming one.
In 2009, the summer after his freshman season, forward Julian Boyd was playing a pickup game at home in San Antonio when he unexpectedly went into kidney failure. After being rushed to the ER of a nearby hospital, Boyd underwent a battery of tests and was diagnosed with noncompaction cardiomyopathy; his blood was not circulating properly in his heart.
The NEC Rookie of the Year in 2008–09, Boyd was forced to sit out the following season while potentially facing a future without basketball. It wasn’t until July 2010 that doctors at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York cleared him to play again.
Boyd has taken full advantage of the new lease on his basketball life. He was the Northeast Conference Player of the Year and tournament MVP this past season and made the All-NEC First Team for both 2010-11 and 2011-12. He leads the Blackbirds in points (17.4 PPG) and rebounds (9.5) on 55.7-percent shooting from the field while also serving as a team leader and calming presence in the huddle.
Fans who tuned in to the ESPN2 broadcast of the Blackbirds’ NEC title game win on March 7 were given a heavy dose of a celebrity fan most often seen courtside at Madison Square Garden.
Spike Lee is no bandwagon fan. The film director grew up in Fort Greene near the LIU Brooklyn campus, and many of his businesses—along with his film company—are based in the neighborhood. Before the game, he visited with the Blackbirds’ coaches and players to wish them luck.
Lee is not the only well-known pop culture figure to give LIU Brooklyn his seal of approval. Before the Blackbirds’ hard-fought loss to North Carolina in last year’s tournament, The Roots saluted coach Jim Ferry with a soulful tribute on the March 16, 2011 edition of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
No word on whether Jay-Z is available this year to do the same.
In the nascent days of college basketball, LIU Brooklyn (then just LIU) was among the sport’s first dynasties.
Under the direction of legendary coach Clair Bee—whose long-term contributions to the game include the 1-3-1 zone defense and the three-second rule—the Blackbirds enjoyed two perfect seasons (1936 and ’39) and won two National Invitational Tournament titles (’39 and ’41) back when the NIT was the premiere college basketball postseason tournament.
LIU was considered such a force after their perfect season in ’36 that they were favored to represent the U.S. at that year’s Summer Olympic Games in Berlin—the first time basketball was a medal sport. Ultimately, they decided as a team to boycott the Games in protest of Nazi Germany and its anti-Jewish policies.
LIU basketball was not without its share of scandal. The Blackbirds’ role in the infamous CCNY Point Shaving Scandal of 1951 resulted in Bee’s resignation, one player receiving a one-year prison sentence and suspension of the school’s entire athletic program from 1951 to 1957.
New York City has always been fiercely passionate about its college basketball. When St. John’s was a consistent presence in the tournament during the 1980s and ’90s, the Big Apple coursed with a palpable energy as it followed the fortunes of the Red Men/Red Storm.
Alas, St. John’s did not make it to this year’s tournament, leaving the Blackbirds as the city’s sole representative in the Big Dance.
Beyond that, LIU Brooklyn has the added cache of representing arguably the cultural epicenter—in terms of fashion, food, music, you name it—of the moment. In addition, the Nets’ new arena will open later this year just 10 minutes from the Blackbirds’ campus.
Consider LIU Brooklyn’s success on the hardwood—both this season and last—as an appetizer for the borough’s reemergence as a big part of the basketball world.