Making their second straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the Long Island Blackbirds have the daunting task of taking on the Michigan State Spartans in the second round of the 74th annual event at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
LIU, which has lost only twice since the start of the new calendar year, hails from the Northeast Conference where it produced an impressive 16-2 record and was 25-8 overall in 2011-12. The team captured the NEC Tournament title nine days ago with a 90-73 stomping of Robert Morris which was somewhat unexpected given that the opposition was one of the teams that logged a win against the Blackbirds in January by a score of 75-66.
As for the Spartans, the top seed in the West Region, playing in the postseason has become a common occurrence for the program and head coach Tom Izzo. For the fifth time ever and the fourth under Izzo, the Spartans are a top seed in the event, winning the automatic bid to the tourney thanks to a 68-64 win over Ohio State in the Big Ten Conference Tournament title game last weekend.
Coach Izzo has tied the legendary Bob Knight for the most consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament by a Big Ten coach with 15 straight, the team's streak ranking third in the nation behind only Kansas and Duke. The Spartans have made it to the Final Four eight times over the years and have won the national title in both 1979 and 2000, generating a record of 52-24 over the years.
More good news for the Spartans is that the team is a perfect 8-0 on this date, winning five times during the NCAA Tournament.
Believe it or not, this is the fourth meeting all-time between these two teams and it is Long Island which owns a 2-1 advantage over the Spartans. However, it must be noted that the teams have not met since World War II, the most recent clash coming in 1940-41 when the Blackbirds delivered a 24-23 victory over MSU in East Lansing.
The winner from this contest advances to the third round on Sunday and will take on the survivor of the Saint Louis/Memphis meeting.
The fourth LIU player to be named the NEC Player of the Year, Julian Boyd led the Blackbirds in scoring and rebounding with averages of 17.4 ppg and 9.5 rpg. The NEC Tournament's MVP and a member of the All-NEC First Team, Boyd has scored in double figures in all but two games this season, producing nine against both Hofstra and Mount St. Mary's. Joining Boyd on the All-NEC First Team is Jamal Olasewere who is second on the team in both scoring (16.8 ppg) and rebounding (7.5 rpg), shooting 57.7 percent from the floor. If not for the fact that he fouled out of nine games and always seemed to be dealing with foul trouble as he averaged just under 26 minutes per game, Olasewere surely could have boosted some of those numbers even higher. C.J. Garner (12.5 ppg) and Jason Brickman (9.7 ppg) combined to hand out 353 assists for the Blackbirds, the latter averaging close to eight per game all on his own.
The Spartans begin and end with the exploits of Draymond Green, the Big Ten Conference Player of the Year. The Most Outstanding Player of the Big Ten Tournament as he averaged a double-double with 15.7 points and 11.7 rebounds per game, Green has developed into a tough defensive matchup for almost every opponent because he not only crashes the boards with a team-leading 10.4 ppg, he has also forced foes to follow him out to the perimeter where he has knocked down 39.5 percent of his three-point tries, en route to a team-leading 16.1 ppg. Add to that his ability to find teammates with 123 assists and his willingness to play tough defense (50 steals, 34 blocked shots) and you're hard-pressed to find another player who possesses the same skill set anywhere in the country. Keith Appling, an All-Big Ten Third Team selection, is the other double-digit scorer for the Spartans with 11.3 ppg, his 134 assists pacing the squad.