By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Jack Perri knew, even before Selection Sunday, that his three-time defending Northeast Conference champion LIU-Brooklyn Blackbirds were headed for a spot in the First Four of this year's NCAA Tournament.
"We've had some pretty rough losses during the year, so I would imagine a play-in game is clearly an option, and if it is, that's fine," the first-year coach said, moments after helping his team cut down the nets following last Tuesday's 91-70 rout of Mount St. Mary's in the NEC title game at Downtown's Wellness, Recreation and Athletic Center.
"We'll take whoever we get and have confidence with these guys no matter who we play," added Perri, who found out with the rest of his team Sunday that the Blackbirds would meet fellow No. 16 seed James Madison University for its first-round (play-in) encounter in Dayton, Ohio, Wednesday night at 6:40 p.m., in a game that will be televised nationally on TruTV.
LIU point guard Jason Brickman, the NCAA leader in assists with 8.5 per game, believes the time is right for these dynastic Blackbirds to make more history this week. After becoming the first-ever NEC squad to rip off three straight trips to March Madness, Perri's squad has a prime opportunity to score LIU's first win in the school's six trips to the NCAAs.
"I think with the experience we got the last two years, we're ready to go compete and win a game [in the tournament]," Brickman said.
The Blackbirds, who were heavy underdogs in second-round losses to No. 2 seeded North Carolina and top-seeded Michigan State in each of their previous two trips to the NCAAs under former coach Jim Ferry, are actually a slight (1 1/2-point) favorite over JMU on Wednesday.
Led by reigning NEC Player of the Year Jamal Olasewere (18.9 points, 8.9 rebounds), red-hot NEC Tournament MVP C.J. Garner (a career-high 31 points in Tuesday's championship game victory), freshman sensation E.J. Reed (7.7 ppg) and Brickman, LIU (20-13, 12-6 NEC) should benefit greatly from the first-half absence of Dukes leading scorer and rebounder Rayshawn Goins, who was suspended for the opening 20 minutes of the first-round game by coach Matt Brady.
Harrisonburg, Va., police say Goins was arrested early Sunday on charges of disorderly conduct and obstructing justice. Police say they were called to break up a party on the morning the Dukes would learn their seeding, and Goins was shouting obscenities at them and ''enticing the crowd'' before leaving with acquaintances.
Police say they did not arrest Goins immediately for fear the crowd would ''turn riotous.''
The 6-foot-6 senior forward averages 12.7 points and 7.4 rebounds for JMU, which will be making its first trip to the NCAAs since 1994, giving LIU a decided advantage in experience, as well as firepower.
However, Perri and the Blackbirds won't be looking at point spreads or booking their hotel for two extra nights in the hopes of advancing to face top-seeded Indiana Friday night in Dayton.
Instead, they'll rely on the resilience and know-how that has helped them overcome countless obstacles on their path to Title III this season, including a quartet of player suspensions stemming from an ugly preseason on-campus incident and the loss of 2012 NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd to a devastating knee injury in December.
"This year they had to show their true colors," Perri said of his team, which also recovered from a potential season-killing six-game losing streak shortly after Boyd's ACL tear. "I'm so proud of them. For the character that they showed throughout the year with all the adversity that they faced. The leadership [on this team] is unbelievable."
Imagine how much prouder Perri will be if these Blackbirds stake their claim as the first ever to win an NCAA Tournament game in the long, proud history of Blackbird basketball?