for a second straight year Butler University has shocked the college hoops world. For a second straight year their magic carpet ride swept them through the NCAA tournament and into the national finals. For a second straight year however, the emphasis here is not on the small, private, Indianapolis school (coincidentally or not, the heart of the hoops world) but instead, on Brooklyn. While last year's "March Madness" rant involved the official groundbreaking of the Barcaly's Center, the world's most expensive arena, this year the big news stems from further up Flatbush Avenue. This year, just across the street from the world famous, Juniors, the Long Island University Blackbirds became part of the Madness. For the first time in 14 years and second in 27, LIU, who just last year we knocked as hopelessly mediocre, finally returned to the Big Dance.
Of course, we'd be remiss in not mentioning the Butler Bulldogs, so let's start there.
After knocking out Syracuse, Kansas State and Michigan State last year, the "mid-major" victimized Pitt, Wisconsin and Florida before moving past fellow "mid-major" VCU, for a return trip to the title game. With less than half the basketball budget of bigger state schools and a talent level that would warrant few if any scholarships to those same state schools, Butler once again made "experts" like Digger Phelps and Dick Vitale look like complete and utter clowns.
Of course the Bulldogs didn't quite finish the job. Last year's last second, heart breaking loss to power house Duke was followed by a less dramatic defeat to a much bigger and stronger UConn team this year. Holding a halftime lead, however, the impossible briefly seemed possible. Even in defeat Butler accomplished something which many giants haven't. This includes their downstate neighbors, Indiana University, one of the top basketball programs, but one which has never been to consecutive finals.
Although some giants, like UCLA, hold little stock in anything but title wins (the Bruins only hang championship banners and not title game appearances or Final Four appearances at their gym) simply returning to the finals was cause enough for celebration for the Bulldogs.
For even smaller schools, just reaching the NCAA tournament is a victory. That brings us to the "minnows" at Flatbush Avenue. It was the Blackbird's first trip to the tournament since 1997 and this time they arrived sans controversy. The 1997 club was led by controversial coach, Ray Haskins. The Kings County product and Assistant Principle at Automotive High had worked on local summer league teams but had never coached at the college level before. Despite being known as a disciplinarian, Haskins' "gym-first" mentality often left him at odds with school administration. His forte was getting the most out of troubled stars and he was successful in adding Charles Jones to the program. Jones had transfered out of Rutgers after two drama-filled seasons to return to his native Brooklyn. Leaving a state school in the process of joining the Big East school for tiny LIU left many head scratches although on the court, Jones was allowed to shine. On Flatbush Avenue he led the country in scoring for two straight seasons. His 30 points per game were backed with averages of 7 assists and 5 rebounds a game, making him a legite NBA prospect.
While Jones' inclusion to the small school was puzzling, Haskins' recruitment of, Richie Parker, the team's second highest scorer, was scandalous.
Parker, a playground legend from Harlem, had been courted by all the major programs. Seton Hall, Utah, USC and Georgetown were all hoping to land him until one afternoon during his senior year at Manhattan Center High.
There he and a friend cornered a freshman girl in a stairwell and sexually assaulted her. On the staircase the two forced her into giving them both oral sex. The crime rightfully ended his career at any big time university before it even started. Parker took his JV record (he was placed on five years probation) to a community college in Arizona before returning home with the hopes of a second chance. Against the angry wishes of many, and in front of a media uproar, Haskins gave him that chance.
Although allowing a sexual offender onto the team showed a complete disregard for women, reports say that Parker changed his life around under Haskins' leadership. An impressive list of professors as well as, Gale Stevens Hays, the school Provost, attested to Parker being a model citizen. The team opened the season with a win at St. John's. They closed the season in the Big Dance, falling to Big East power, Villanova. In between there were other big games, but all were overshadowed by the presence of Richie Parker. The team continued to win the next season, they reached the NIT in 1998 despite other controversies including the recruitment of other troubled high school players who Haskins tried adding to the team. Eventually the relationship between coach and provost soured. Haskins eventually walked out the school under difficult circumstances. He left when, according to the New York Times, "his ambitions became too big for the university." Still, even without his mentor, Parker, like Jones before him, graduated. Parker actually graduated early and with a year of eligibility left, signed up for grad courses during an injury filled final season at LIU under a new coach, Ray Martin. Haskins returned to public school's system, Jones landed in the NBA (he played for two seasons before moving on to Italy, Greece, and later Argentina) while Parker later had a mediocre career in the minors before once again returning to LIU, as a school administrator.
Under Ray Martin, LIU slipped to lows not seen since the 1950s, when due to the most infamous of all point shaving scandals, the school dropped their basketball program. Even back in their glory days, controversy seems to have followed the Blackbirds around. As far as small schools go however, so did wins. Well, until the Ray Martin era at least. His successor, Jim Ferry wasn't much better.
Despite moving to a new $40 million gym in 2006 (the team had previously played at the beautiful but ancient Paramount Theater, directly across the street from Juniors) and refurbishing much of the urban campus, Ferry could not build a winner. In fact, going into this season he could only muster one winning season in eight tries with the Blackbirds. This year it all turned around.
Thanks to back-to-back strong recruiting classes featuring only two locals, but four Canadians, as well as a pair of Texans, LIU surprised most in posting a 27-5 record. Those victories came off other smaller schools (their biggest win came at Fordham) but in taking their conference tournament, they earned an automatic bid into the Big Dance.
In the opening round LIU was matched up against North Carolina, the winningest team of all time. To make matters worse, the game was scheduled in Charlotte, giving UNC a virtual home game in a tournament that is supposed to be played at neutral venues. From the outset the Tar Heels proved to be bigger, faster, more athletic, more talented and under two-time National Champion, Roy Williams, better coached as well. Three minutes into the game, the Tar Heels, an 18 point favorite, already had a 12-2 lead.
LIU, historically a free-flowing high-scoring team, did what most small schools do when mismatched, they shot threes. Scoring in bunches, the Blackbirds eventually tied the game at 33. North Carolina runs to close the first half and open the second half, however, went unmatched. The threes were no longer sinking for LIU as UNC continued to dominate the paint the vastly inferior Brooklynites. The UNC explosion ended with the Tar Heels holding a 70-49 lead early in the second half. Once again LIU battled back. Even while missing many more threes than they hit, the Blackbirds still cut the deficit to 77-68 with nine minutes to go in the game. A final UNC run then put the game away for good. LIU's drought at the three point line allowed the home team to coast down the stretch of a 102-87 victory. For a while though, Jim Ferry's club proved they could play.
Still wet behind the ears, LIU returns 6 of their 8 top scorers and 5 of those 6 return as underclassman. If Ferry can put together a third straight recruiting class, the Blackbirds might have a brief shot at bringing back some of their pre-point shaving scandal glory. Back when they'd occasionally beat local giants like St. John's as well as national ones like DePaul, Marquette and West Virginia. If Butler can once again be one of the top two teams in the country, anything is possible. With Barclay's being built ahead of schedule, LIU's renaissance could not have come at a better time. Next year we hope that they not only return to the Big Dance but also pull off a first round upset. Yeah, playing well and covering the spread was nice (especially for uhm, old school LIU grads) but the moment to jump to "mid-major" status is now.*