Ah, the first Behind Enemy Lines of the season. It feels so fresh and new. The opposite number this time around? John Templon of NYCBuckets.com, a catch-all site for everything related to Big Apple hoops. Make sure to head over there to read his preview and our answers to his questions, but stay right here to see how he feels LIU will handle Alex Len, how local star Jamal Olasewere has taken to life in Brooklyn, and his prediction for tonight.
TT: LIU won the NEC and was a tournament team last season; they bring back virtually everyone from that squad, save the head coach. They probably expected to be closer to 2-0 than 0-2 heading into the Maryland game, with winnable contests against Morehead State and Lafayette as undercards. What went wrong in those opening two games, and how have they changed the outlook for this team?
NYCH: Yeah, LIU definitely thought they were going to be 2-0 and not 0-2 at this point. The problems have been varied in the first two games, which is all the more troubling. In the first game the Blackbirds just didn't shoot well enough to win and, confusingly, seemed to get tired as the game went on. This is a team that played really fast last season, but seems tentative to play that style in 2012-13. It may be because a few of the big men are still recovering from injury. Against Lafayette the problem was defense. The Blackbirds got torched by sophomore forward Dan Trist and allowed 98 points in an 80-possession overtime loss. Another concern is that star forward Julian Boyd has had to miss the end of both games due to cramping. He has a heart condition that forced him to redshirt for an entire season. Concern about his health is obviously the utmost priority and when he's cramping the staff doesn't put him back on the floor. It's hurt LIU down the stretch of close games.
TT: Jamal Olaswere was pretty good last year, averaging 17 and 7 as a junior, but he's been downright fantastic through the first two games this season, averaging 25.5 and 8 and a half boards. What's made him so good?
NYCH: One the of the things Olasewere, who is from Silver Spring, MD and will probably be super hyped for this game, has changed is that he's playing more minutes. He's also shooting a lot. The key though is that against Morehead and Lafayette he was able to use his athleticism to get to the free throw line a combined 31 times. He's a solid free throw shooter, so if he can get to the line it's a bonus for LIU. The one knock on his game early in the season is that he's shot poorly from three (0-5). He'll need to hit a few in order to keep defenders honest so he can keep driving past them.
TT: It's not every day that a team faces a 7-1 center with some skill. LIU has a scrappy, experienced front court, but only one player on the roster taller than 6-7 (6-8 reserve sophomore Khalil Murphy). How are you expecting them to deal with Alex Len's height and length?
NYCH: Len is a huge concern for LIU. Morehead St. isn't particularly tall and they gave LIU fits on the boards. Maryland is probably going to cause even more problems there. Trist is 6'9" and LIU couldn't find anyone to guard him. Basically, Len is one really big trump card. Besides trying to deny him the ball in the post and trying to bring a guard down to double-team on almost every occasion I'm not sure what LIU can do to take him away, especially at the level he's currently playing. Another way to neutralize Len might be to force him to guard on defense. LIU's forwards are comfortable coming out of the paint and if they can draw Len out there's the potential to create some awkward defensive situations. If they can get him in foul trouble it would help. That's why it's important to play through Boyd, the NEC's Player of the Year last season.
TT: Care to make a prediction for the game? Or, more broadly, any general expectations?
NYCH: I'm checking out Ken Pomeroy's projection right now and he has Maryland as a 9-point favorite and LIU with a 24% chance of winning. That seems rather generous considering how the Blackbirds are currently playing. Keeping the final score within 10 points would be a sort of win for LIU in my mind. The Blackbirds showed against Michigan State in the NCAA tournament last season that they can hang with big teams for at least a half, but Maryland will eventually pull away. Look for Olasewere and C.J. Garner - another Maryland native - to have big games and try to keep the Blackbirds in it.