Jack Perri has LIU Brooklyn trending upward entering his fourth season, even after three Blackbird starters have either graduated or transferred. (Photo courtesy of Bob Dea via Nelson Castillo's Blackbirds Hoops Journal)
Looking at the roster on the team website, with no seniors among the group, one may find it hard to believe that LIU Brooklyn stands just two seasons removed from the most recent vestiges of a conference championship and NCAA Tournament appearance.
Yet, after an adjustment to life without Jason Brickman and a 12-18 season that returned them to the Northeast Conference Tournament for the first time since cutting down the net for a third consecutive year, the Blackbirds have; to quote the classic Beatles song with which the program shares a name, taken these broken wings and learned to fly.
"Going into last year, I knew what I wanted to do," head coach Jack Perri recounted, "and that was give a lot of experience to our young guys. It was probably what I expected in a lot of ways. In 78 percent of our games, we were either ahead or within a basket under five minutes (in regulation). It was a matter of learning how to win, but we gained a ton of experience."
The experience of which Perri speaks is prevalent both inside and outside the three-point line, with Iverson Fleming and Joel Fernandez returning to the backcourt along with Martin Hermannsson, who would theoretically become the de facto point guard following the transfer of Elvar Fridriksson. However, the Blackbirds' coach praised junior college newcomer Aakim Saintil, whom he expects to compete for the starting point guard position alongside Fleming as LIU welcomes its third floor general in as many years. Of Hermannsson, Perri admitted he is more partial to playing off the ball, but would see some minutes as the facilitator as well.
"He's going to be a focal point for sure," Perri said of his Icelandic guard, who is currently playing for his country's national team during the offseason. "I trust his decisions, I trust his ability. I think he's got a chance to be an all-conference kid this year. Did he shoot real well from behind the three last year? No, but I think that might have just been more getting adjusted to the American game a little bit, because he made them in practice. I'd be surprised if he stays in that 30 percent mark this year."
Up front, the makeover for the Blackbirds is more pronounced. Gone is senior cog Landon Atterberry, leaving Nura Zanna as the only returning starter in the paint. However, LIU welcomes mounds of depth into Brooklyn to join the Nigerian forward, starting with Florida International expatriate Jerome Frink, and a healthy Glenn Feidanga, who returns for his junior season.
"Glenn was not healthy at all," Perri revealed after conveying his excitement toward the prospects of his team's interior play. "He had gotten a high ankle sprain in November, right before the start of the season, and really, he was never healthy and he missed a lot of games. I think if he had played a lot of the games, we could have had a different record, because the reality was we had no frontcourt after Nura, and Nura had so many issues with foul trouble, and I'd have to play Landon at the five."
"That's when teams would kind of make their move," he expounded. "You look at the plus/minus with Nura, and his plus/minus was really good, and then, boom, once we went to that smaller lineup, that's when we really struggled. But Glenn had a really good offseason, he's 100 percent healthy, and then adding Jerome Frink, he started in Conference USA for two years. He could step out, he can shoot, he has a really high basketball IQ. He's as strong as Julian Boyd when he was here, so I'm really excited about him."
With five newcomers in the fold, plus an influx of depth not seen in the last two years, the Blackbirds definitely have the pieces to make a run in what looks to be anyone's Northeast Conference to win. Although Robert Morris, Mount St. Mary's and St. Francis Brooklyn may have the most returning players this season, not many teams in the league are as complete as LIU looks to be, and in the eyes of their coach, it gives them the belief that they, too, are in the mix.
"I saw a lot of positives," Perri again declared. "I feel really good about the group we have coming back, I feel really good about the people we brought in, and I think we're just going to continue to grow. Hopefully this is a different year, and I'm going to have a different mindset. I think we have some pieces here that could help us challenge for a top four spot, which is always the goal. We're climbing, and I think we're in the right direction. We had to rebuild simply because we lost so many guys and we had so many injuries, but now I think we're getting back to where we're supposed to be."