As you know by now, the Long Island University (LIU) Blackbirds won their second consecutive Northeast Conference (NEC) title and qualified once again for the NCAA tournament by defeating Robert Morris in Brooklyn last Wednesday night. Their reward for ripping through the NEC with a superb 19-2 record, however, leads to a first round showdown with Tom Izzo’s Michigan State (MSU) Spartans, winners of the Big Ten regular season and tournament championship. Not only will the #16 seeded LIU Blackbirds battle MSU this Friday night, but they’ll also face off against history, and some pretty serious history at that.
To date, a #16 seeded team has failed to record one victory in 108 tries when challenging a #1 seeded team in the NCAA tournament. LIU, despite four previous Big Dance appearances, has never won a NCAA game, with their closest moment resulting in a three-point loss to Jim Calhoun’s Northeastern team in 1984 (yes, THAT Jim Calhoun). LIU has never defeated a team in the RPI top 50 (I know, Ken Pomeroy hates RPI, but just follow along until I sign up for KenPom before next season). From the other side, MSU is 10-4 in the first round of the NCAA tournament under Tom Izzo and 8-0 when seeded fifth or higher. Michigan State has never lost to a NEC school, nor has LIU ever beaten a Big Ten team in its history.
There are some serious historic hurdles to clear for Jim Ferry’s Blackbirds, aren’t there?
Well, I’m here to tell you LIU has a chance. Sure, it’s a slim chance, but if LIU plays their best and gets a few lucky bounces and calls, I do honestly believe they have a shot to make history. Just please don’t expect me to have the balls to write LIU into the second round of my office tournament bracket.
In the past two seasons, LIU has lost both of their games to Big Ten schools. Neither team, Penn State nor Northwestern, came close to the quality of MSU, and with the absence of a ranked power conference opponent in their schedule this season, it’s difficult to forecast how the Blackbirds will respond to a national juggernaut on the big stage of the NCAA tournament. The only real comparison is LIU's NCAA opponent from a year ago, North Carolina, but the Tar Heels don't resemble your typical Big Ten team.
I can, however, tell you what the Blackbirds must do in order to have a chance to play in the second round on Sunday. These four things listed below are essential for LIU to execute in order to have a fighting chance.
1) Play Up-tempo LIU Basketball
Within the vacuum of mid-major basketball, LIU can score at an efficient level in the half-court set or when pushing the pace. With the defensive minded Spartans however, the Blackbirds must do their best to set the tempo to a 75-possession game. Izzo’s Spartans thrive in the half-court set and lead the Big Ten in points allowed per possession at 0.91, therefore it would benefit Jason Brickman and company to run like they’ve never run before to help stay away from the Big Ten brand of physical basketball. More possessions won’t necessarily increase LIU’s chances for an upset, but efficient possessions coupled with a low turnover ratio certainly will.
2) Shoot Lights Out Behind the Arc
Three-point shooting almost always shows up as a key to the game when I’m writing a game preview involving LIU. This is because when LIU hits their long-range buckets, they’re almost impossible to beat…well at least at the NEC level. This David and Goliath match-up shouldn’t be an exception to the rule, since most Cinderella schools need the three-point shot to help pull off the monster upset. It wasn’t a coincidence that Richmond, VCU, and Morehead State each shot better than 47% from behind the arc in their respective first round upset victories last year. Thus, Blackbird fans better hope Michael Culpo, CJ Garner, and Brickman are feeling it on Friday night.
3) Be Aggressive by Getting to the Free Throw Line
A major strength of LIU, as depicted nicely by John Templon, is their production at the free throw line. Currently, the Blackbirds are ranked second in the nation (yes, second) in free throw production, so fouling has to be a concern for Tom Izzo. The Spartans are only 2-4 on the year when they foul their opponent more than 20 times. Sure, those 4 losses are to Wisconsin, Duke, Northwestern, and North Carolina, but one of those two wins could serve as an excellent blueprint for LIU. Patriot Leaguer Lehigh lost a close December showdown with MSU, as they were competitively in the game for the first 30 minutes, in spite of playing at the unfriendly confines of East Lansing. In the game, Lehigh forced 22 MSU personal fouls, which led to 30 free throw attempts and a rather respectable nine point defeat.
4) Elicit the Tom Izzo Face As Much As Possible
This statistic hasn't been confirmed by Basketball Prospectus, but I'm pretty sure MSU loses most of the time when the Tom Izzo face comes out at least 10 times in the second half of a game (for proof, watch MSU's loss at Illinois). You know, it's the face Coach Izzo makes when a player commits a bonehead foul, shoots a contested jumper early in the shot clock, or fails to properly defend a high pick-and-roll. If you didn't know any better, you'd think Izzo found out his student athlete was just arrested for dealing drugs. If LIU can elicit the Izzo face throughout most of the game, then LIU has a shot. I'm setting the Izzo Face magic number to 13.5 for the game. Anything under that, and it's probably curtains for the Blackbirds.
Seem easy enough, right? If LIU can execute their game plan, they could surprise with a competitive game in the first round. Only five #16 seeded teams have ever lost to a #1 seed by five points or less, but it’s a fairly reasonable possibility that Jim Ferry’s club can keep the game close. After all, the NEC (aka, LIU and Robert Morris) has competed admirably in the most recent NCAA tournaments, so it isn't a stretch to think that Draymond Green, Keith Appling and company may sweat it out in the second half of Friday's contest.
All I know, is it will be a fun game to watch on TBS this Friday night. Especially with my wife, who is a Spartan alum and a big Tom Izzo fan.
You can follow Pioneer Pride on Twitter at @pioneer_pride
You can follow Pioneer Pride on Twitter at @pioneer_pride