Despite 16 seed, don't count LIU out
Brooklyn's Blackbirds aren't your typical No. 16, and here are five reasons why
LIU Brooklyn, it's all on you.
The Blackbirds are the New York metropolitan area's lone representative in this year's Big Dance, after Iona's crushing loss to BYU in the NCAA First Four on Tuesday night.
No one is giving LIU much of a chance. After all, it's a No. 16 seed facing Big Ten champion Michigan State, and a No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Ever.
But this could be the year, and LIU could be the team. Here are five reasons why:
THEY AREN'T A 16-SEED
Well, technically they are, but the Blackbirds aren't your typical No. 16 seed.
LIU has won back-to-back Northeast Conference regular-season championships, and back-to-back NEC tournaments -- not an easy thing to do, in any conference.
Last season, LIU squeaked past Robert Morris in the NEC title game, 85-82 in overtime. This year, LIU blew out Robert Morris in a rematch, 90-73.
The Blackbirds are 25-8 overall, went 16-2 in the conference, and have won 11 of their past 12 games. And the only loss was in the final game of the regular season, after they had already wrapped up the conference championship.
LIU was a No. 15 seed last year, and hung tough against No. 2 seed North Carolina, in Charlotte. The game was tied with less than five minutes remaining in the first half, and the final score was 102-87.
The Blackbirds won't be awed by the NCAA tournament experience the second time around. They've been through this before.
For a small-conference team to pick off a powerhouse program like Michigan State in the NCAA tournament, it will need to make some 3-point shots, and that is one of LIU's strengths.
As a team, the Blackbirds shoot 36.8 percent from beyond the arc, which ranks them 64th out of 338 Division I schools.
Six-foot-1 senior Michael Culpo is LIU's most prolific 3-point shooter, with 70 treys on the season, shooting 38.5 percent from deep. And two other starters shoot better than 40 percent -- 6-foot-7 junior forward Julian Boyd (42.6 percent) and 5-foot-10 sophomore point guard Jason Brickman (40.5 percent).
On a hot shooting day, LIU is very dangerous. And they have Brickman to set up the other shooters, too. He is fifth in the country in assists, averaging 7.3 per game.
CLASH OF STYLES
LIU is ranked third in the country in offense, scoring 81.9 points per game. Michigan State is ranked 16th in the country in defense, giving up just 59.1 points per game. Something's gotta give on Friday night. The Blackbirds will try to run, just like they did last year against North Carolina. That style suited the Tar Heels just fine, and eventually they were able to outrun LIU, thanks in part to their height advantage. Michigan State may not be as comfortable if LIU is able to turn this into an up-and-down game.
Also, North Carolina's big men dominated LIU last year: 7-footer Tyler Zeller had a career-high 32 points, and 6-foot-11 John Henson had 28 points and six blocked shots. Michigan State has 6-foot-10 center Adreian Payne, but he isn't nearly the player Zeller and Henson are, averaging just 6.9 points and 4.1 rebounds per game.
LIU will have to contend with Michigan State's star forward Draymond Green, a 6-foot-7 senior who is averaging 16.1 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. But LIU has a pair of outstanding 6-foot-7 forwards in Boyd (17.4 ppg, 9.5 rpg) and Jamal Olasewere (16.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg).
Boyd and Olasewere both can handle the ball, take it to the rim and knock down an outside shot. They can cause matchup problems, even for a Big Ten team.
One more thing -- LIU is second in the nation in free throw attempts per game (28.5), and leads the nation in free throws made per game (20.9). The Blackbirds have a knack for getting to the foul line.
Michigan State freshman forward Branden Dawson suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in the final game of the regular season, and will miss the NCAA tournament.
Whenever a team suffers an injury to a key player late in the season, it's difficult to adjust on the fly with so few practices and games remaining. Dawson was the Spartans' third-leading scorer when he went down (8.4 ppg), and second-leading rebounder (4.5 rpg).
Michigan State has thrived without Dawson so far, winning three straight games to take the Big Ten tournament title, but that doesn't mean Dawson won't be missed in the Big Dance.
He likely would have been matched up against either Boyd or Olasewere defensively. It's a significant loss for Tom Izzo's club.
IT'S GOING TO HAPPEN EVENTUALLY
Four No. 15 seeds have knocked off No. 2 seeds in the NCAA tournament, and there have been several close calls involving No. 16's playing No. 1's -- just look at the scare UNC-Asheville put into Syracuse on Thursday.
With the increased parity in college basketball and with mid-majors making the Final Four over the past few years, a No. 16 seed beating a No. 1 is bound to happen -- it's only a matter of time.
When the LIU Brooklyn players -- gathered at an on-campus Quiznos on Selection Sunday -- saw their school's name pop up on the television screens, there wasn't the usual outburst of celebration that you usually see when a small school officially makes the biggest stage in college basketball.
Instead, the Blackbirds acted as though they'd been there before. Which they have.
In fact, they were disappointed to be seeded 16th, and immediately began talking about the extra motivation it provided: to prove people wrong and, in the process, make history.
They have their chance Friday night. Don't be too shocked if the Blackbirds pull it off.