By Jon Rothstein
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Jim Ferry must have felt like it was early March in mid December.
Instead of healthy players and periods set aside to experiment with different lineups, LIU’s coach found himself with barely enough bodies for practice along with a brutal early season stretch that saw the Blackbirds open with eight of their first 11 games on the road.
The road schedule, which included trips to Old Dominion, Penn State and Iona left the Blackbirds at 5-6 and a bit bruised and battered — which according to Ferry, was a microcosm of the Blackbirds start to the season.
“We had a brutal preseason having to play eight of our first eleven games on the road and also had a ton of injuries to deal with,” Ferry said Tuesday. “Still, in a weird way the schedule prepared us for where we are now because it exposed all of our warts. We knew we had talent, but playing so many tough games away from home allowed us to look at what we needed to fix.”
And that’s just what the Blackbirds have done.
Since starting 5-6, LIU has won nine games in a row and is in sole possession of first place in the NEC with a perfect 8-0 record in conference play.
“We’ve started to click and our pieces have started to come together,” Ferry said of the Blackbirds. “With the experience we have from last year, we know all we need to focus on is putting ourselves in position to win the last three games of the year.”
With home court advantage in the NEC Conference Tournament based on seed, LIU should be in prime position to make the road to a championship run through Brooklyn — a surprising feat to some who might have thought the depth of the league would allow another team to come to the forefront.
“A lot of teams in our league have gotten some publicity and they deserve it,” Ferry said. “Wagner won at Pitt and has had some great wins and Robert Morris has obviously done what they have to do. What I like about that is its taken some attention away from us. It’s allowed us to fly under the radar a bit.”
And that’s hard to do considering the Blackbirds front court. The duo of junior big men Julian Boyd and Jamal Olasewere has terrorized opposing baselines and are combining for approximately 33 points and 17 rebounds per outing.
“They’re just what I thought they’d be,” Ferry said of Boyd and Olasewere. “They’re both monsters. I’m glad they’re on my team.”
While Boyd and Olasewere have controlled the paint, sophomore floor general Jason Brickman has anchored the perimeter. The metropolitan area’s newcomer of the year last season, Brickman has taken a major jump in his second season of college basketball.
“He controls the game like a true point guard and has drastically increased his shooting ability from last year,” Ferry said of Brickman, who’s now shooting 48.6% from 3-point range, around ten percent better than he was as a freshman. “He’s a special player that you really have to cherish because he’s so unselfish.”
Next to Brickman has been junior C.J. Garner, who is a big part of the dual point guard approach that Ferry likes to employ.
“He can create shots off the bounce and has really flourished off the ball,” Ferry said of Garner, whose third on the Blackbirds in scoring at 11.2 PPG. “He’s also stepped up his defense.”
The signs might point towards a second consecutive NEC title and another appearance in the NCAA Tournament but like most coaches, Ferry knows the only way to approach things is to take them one day at a time.
“We’ve always said that our only goal is to be a team that gets better each and every day and that’s what we intend to do,” Ferry said. “We lost some pieces from last year and guys are in different roles and have had to adjust to those roles. We’re just hoping everything clicks 10 games from now. That’s really all that matters.”
CHAMBERS SEES LOWRY IN FRAZIER:
Penn State junior guard Tim Frazier is one of the more improved players in the country this season and his coach offered high praise for the Nittany Lions star on Tuesday.
“Tim really reminds me of Kyle Lowry with the way he handles the ball and attacks,” Penn State coach Pat Chambers said. “He may not have the tiger that Kyle had but I’m working to get that out of him.”
Chambers, who coached Lowry when he was an assistant at Villanova under Jay Wright is in his first year of coach of the Nittany Lions after spending the past two years at Boston University.
Penn State travels to Columbus to take on Ohio State tonight and will need a big game from Frazier, who is averaging 18 points, 6.4 assists, and five rebounds per game.
Will LIU continue to roll? Be heard in the comments below…