A second consecutive Northeast Conference championship has brought LIU again to the Big Dance, but once more at the bottom of the NCAA Tournament selection committee's food chain. Last year, it was a No. 15 seed, LIU's odds even further diminished by matching it against five-time national champion North Carolina -- in North Carolina. This time, the seed is 16, as low as it can go, and tonight they go against two-time NCAA champ Michigan State -- here in Big Ten territory.
So Julian Boyd, LIU's leading scorer (17.4) and rebounder (9.5), is looking at it the only way he can. "It's motivation for us,'' he said. "It gives us an opportunity to make history'' by being the first 16th seed to knock off a No. 1.
Junior Jamal Olasewere, Boyd's fellow 6-7 forward whose numbers (16.8, 7.5) rival Boyd's, figured, "This tournament is based on upsets.''
And that really appears the only way out of this box for LIU. "For the committee to understand?'' Olasewere said, "Yes.''
Even though so-called mid-majors such as Butler and Virginia Commonwealth recently have reinforced the fallacy of a never-changing hierarchy, LIU is one of those schools caught in the hoops culture war. The dichotomy is that, in the 1930s and 1940s, LIU was a basketball superpower. Ancient history. This season, "We had to play 10 of our first 11 games on the road because nobody wants to play us,'' coach Jim Ferry said. "That's a tough thing to do, to take these kids on the road, night after night after night.''
Members of power conferences can feel secure that a fourth-, fifth- or sixth-place conference finish won't keep them out of the NCAA Tournament, their won-lost records already padded with home games against lesser foes. All of which leads to an easier job of recruiting elite players and getting yet richer.
LIU is forced to settle for the kind of player Ferry was, an all-Nassau County star for Valley Stream North High School who "wanted to go to St. John's and play for Looie Carnesecca. But Chris Mullin was a little better than me.''
Now 44 and in his 10th season at LIU, Ferry has messed with the basketball power structure before, taking Adelphi to the Division II national semifinals after a 29-0 regular season in 2000-01. At LIU, he has assembled "a bunch of tough-minded kids looking forward to taking on the challenge,'' players from all over the country who "epitomize New York,'' he said. "They respect everybody. And fear nobody.''
"We put a body of work together ,'' Ferry said. "The committee decides on it. The seed comes out, OK, you're disappointed. So be it. Time to get to work.''
Things could change. "Eventually,'' senior guard Michael Culpo said, "a 16 is going to beat a No. 1.''