Joel Hernandez (center) and LIU Brooklyn return to NCAA Tournament for first time since 2013 Tuesday night, and will lead off March Madness with First Four game against Radford. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
During his introductory press conference in April, Derek Kellogg did not take long to declare his intentions for the LIU Brooklyn program he took over six weeks after his nine-year tenure at the University of Massachusetts ended.
"We're going to make noise immediately," he boasted, hoping to win over a fan base and group of players disillusioned after his predecessor, Jack Perri, was controversially fired following a 20-win season and runner-up finish in the Northeast Conference.
Eleven months later, Kellogg -- and the core of players he inherited -- made good on that vow, coming through the NEC to shock a Wagner team previously undefeated on its home floor before the conference championship game last Tuesday to earn the Blackbirds' first league title since the last of the program's three-peat in 2013, and with it an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
"It might have been a little big for my britches initially," he quipped when reminded of his declaration in the wake of LIU's ticket-punching triumph. "But I liked some of the guys that were coming back. I thought if we could get a few pieces quickly and some fifth-year guys to bring in a little more stability, that we would have an opportunity to at least make some noise in conference play. When I worked the guys out and kind of got into the job, I thought, 'hey, this team has an opportunity if I could get the tempo the way I want, and then defend and rebound some.'"
Kellogg's boundless energy was key throughout the entire retooling process, from summer workouts to non-conference play, and finally into the NEC season, with the Blackbirds taking the uptempo offense he instilled at UMass and maximizing it when it was most needed, closing the year with five straight victories to vault the former juggernaut of its league back to the highest level.
"He's done an amazing job, coming in and being a first-year coach," said fifth-year senior Joel Hernandez, the linchpin to LIU's run to glory. "I feel like we got comfortable with him off the bat. He's done a good job giving us energy in practice, and I feel like we feed off that in our games. He's done a wonderful job."
Derek Kellogg has taken LIU Brooklyn back to NCAA Tournament in first year with program, and for first time since 2013. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
With the refreshing enthusiasm has come a culture change that has swept over the Blackbirds' Brooklyn campus so suddenly that even its leading scorer could not help but to get caught up in the prospect of eventually believing his team could reach a summit that was not even in his stream of consciousness last March.
"I don't think I was thinking about that a year ago," Hernandez -- whose 32 points in the NEC championship game propelled LIU into the field of 68 -- reflected. "I was just trying to take it day-by-day, but in the summertime, we knew that we could do this. We knew we could lock in and get this done."
"We knew we were going to be here," said Raiquan Clark to echo his teammate's assessment, citing a group text message Hernandez started, with the chat titled "NEC 2018 Champions." "We just had to figure it out and get it done, and we got it done."
With that, LIU now heads into Dayton for a First Four game against Radford, winner of the Big South Conference championship. The NEC champion has begun its NCAA Tournament stay in this round in each of the past five years, with LIU -- ironically enough -- the last to be placed in the main draw when the Blackbirds played Michigan State in 2012. But for all the slights against Dayton, it is; as Fairleigh Dickinson head coach Greg Herenda so eloquently stated when his Knights won the NEC two years ago and were subsequently sent to Ohio, a night in the lights of America, a sentiment with which Kellogg agrees as he is simply eager to just get on the court and compete for 40 minutes with the eyes of the nation transfixed on he and his program.
"I think it's great," he said. "If I was looking in as an outsider, I'd say our conference tournament was as good as any, watching on TV, we've got sold-out arenas, we play in home court arenas. If we get a showcase game and go to Dayton, I'll be happy with that."
All in all, Kellogg returns to the NCAA Tournament hoping to atone for his lone experience, a loss to Tennessee in 2014 while with UMass, and does so with a group of players that have proven his beliefs right and have given him a sense of belonging and joy to simply capitalize on his second chance.
"I thought we could score, and they've proven that throughout the season," he proudly affirmed. "And now kind of on the tail end, when they realized what it takes to win a championship, we started defending and rebounding the ball at a better clip, and then when that happened, the wins have kind of fallen. They've bought in -- the guys get in on their own and get some extra shooting, they come into practice with good attitudes -- and it's really been a pleasure to be around this group, really from day one."