LIU enjoying resurgence in Brooklyn

Gene Boyars/Long Island University Athletics

NEW YORK -- The resurgence of St. John's has been the biggest story in the Big Apple this college basketball season.

But the best story might be happening in Brooklyn, not Queens.

After an 87-76 home win over St. Francis (N.Y.) on Wednesday night, Long Island University is 19-5 overall and in first place in the Northeast Conference at 11-2. The Blackbirds have won 13 of their past 14 games as they attempt to make the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in school history and first time since 1997.

The program has come a long way since coach Jim Ferry took over in 2002, following a 5-22 campaign.

"Nobody wanted to come here," said Ferry, a New York native who had previously coached at Division II Adelphi. "We were the lowest school on the totem pole when I took over the program. So we had to find a niche, we had to find a way to get good basketball players."

Ferry's solution was to "spread our wings" in terms of recruiting -- and the proof of that is obvious if you take a glance at LIU's roster this season. There are four players from Canada, three from Texas and one from Switzerland (yes, Switzerland). Minnesota, Massachusetts and Maryland are also represented -- plus one player from New Jersey and one from Long Island.

"It's a private institution, it's a great academic situation and it's in the heart of Brooklyn," Ferry said. It's New York City, it's a great sell. And the kids from distance want to come, they want to experience New York City."

One of the players who was hooked by the bright lights and big-city atmosphere was 6-foot-7 redshirt sophomore Julian Boyd, who hails from San Antonio. Boyd's college career got off to a flying start, as he was named the NEC's Rookie of the Year two seasons ago after averaging 10.5 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. But then it came to a crashing halt the following summer, back home in Texas.

"I was just working out, doing drills and shooting, playing and stuff," Boyd said. "And I cramped up in my legs -- which is like a usual thing for me, I have a cramping problem. But then all of a sudden it went up to my thighs and my chest and my stomach, and I just started cramping up everywhere."

Boyd ended up in the emergency room, where he was told his kidneys were failing, but the doctors were not sure why. Eventually, after a series of tests, they figured it out -- Boyd was diagnosed with noncompaction cardiomyopathy, a rare heart condition.

Essentially, a part of his heart did not develop properly during pregnancy, and the healthy part became overworked and enlarged. Boyd was told he might never be able to play basketball again, a devastating blow.

But Boyd did not give up hope. He returned to New York and went for a second opinion at Mount Sinai Hospital. That led to a series of tests over the course of last season, as he continued to travel with the team, attending almost every practice and game. "It was the worst year of my life," Boyd said. "It seemed like forever -- just, one test was good, and then they wanted to do another one and another one and another one."

Finally, one evening last summer, Boyd got the best e-mail he has ever received -- from his doctor at Mount Sinai, telling him it was safe to resume his basketball career. "I was probably one of the happiest people in the world," Boyd said.

Ferry was on the road recruiting when he received a phone call from Boyd. "I could tell right away, when he said, 'Hey Coach' -- I could tell right then in his voice, the pitch of his voice, that it was gonna be good news.

"It was obviously an exciting time -- and more so for Julian, to get the game of basketball back in his life, which is such a big part of him. You felt really happy for him."

Boyd isn't just back on the floor for LIU -- he's leading the team in scoring and rebounding, at 12.2 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. But the Blackbirds' success this season has truly been a team effort. All five starters (three sophomores, two seniors) are averaging at least 10 points per game. Seven players have led the team in scoring in a game. And 11 players have scored at least 10 points in a game.

"It's the most unselfish group of guys I've ever been around," Ferry said. "To see these guys totally commit and sacrifice -- you know, no one's playing more than 27 minutes a game, we've got five guys in double figures -- and for these guys to sacrifice for the better of the team, that's a rare thing nowadays.

"They're with each other all the time off the court, they're with each other on the court. It's just a group that really cares about one another, and they play that way, you can see it. The passing is contagious, they play off each other. I think to coach a group of guys that are this unselfish and really have their focus on the big picture of what we're trying to do here, it's been wonderful."

LIU has a one-game lead over Central Connecticut with five games left in the regular season. Winning the NEC regular-season title would give the Blackbirds an automatic berth in the NIT and home-court advantage throughout the conference tournament. But the Blackbirds will still have to win three straight games in March to reach their ultimate goal, the NCAA tournament.

"It is what it is -- I knew what I signed up for," Ferry said. "That's why our focus right now is just about getting better. Yeah, we want to finish first and get that No. 1 seed. But we want to make sure we're better so that when the season is over, we're ready for anything come playoff time."

If LIU does make it to the Big Dance, it will be an entertaining team to watch. The Blackbirds like to go up and down -- they're No. 9 in scoring in all of Division I, averaging 82.1 points per game.

And if they make it to March Madness, no one will appreciate it more than Julian Boyd.

"Now every day out on the court, I play like it's my last," Boyd said. "I just play as hard as I can for whatever time I'm on the court. ... I definitely have a new appreciation for [the game.]"

"That would be fantastic," Boyd added, about making the NCAA tournament. "It would just be a great story."

You bet it would be.