On most days, Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets – who are among the NBA’s best this season – would patrol the floor at the Barclays Center.
On a quaint Thursday afternoon in downtown Brooklyn, the 17,000+ seat arena is filled by fewer than 400 spectators.
Despite the sparse crowd, it’s not rare for the Long Island University (LIU) men’s basketball team to be playing in front of an audience so small.
Such is life as a mid-major in one of Division I basketball’s smallest conferences.
Making the Most of a Tough Schedule
Despite their limited following, even lesser media coverage, and tough start to the season (2-12, 0-2) there remains hope – and a great deal of positivity – in year one of Rod Strickland’s tenure as head coach of the Sharks
“This is essentially ‘Year 0’ for the program’ with a new head coach,” said Donny Chiarel, Assistant Director of Athletic Media Relations for the LIU Sharks.
“But with more than a handful of players from this year’s team set to return next year, we’re building something here. Unfortunately, that can’t always be seen in the results [on paper].”
As optimism fills the program, the games must still be played – and the standings have not been kind to LIU. Both wins this season occurred versus Division III schools, and otherwise, LIU has been outplayed significantly.
Whether versus other mid-majors (UMass Lowell, South Dakota) or national championship contenders (UConn), losses keep piling up. But with a program in a transition period such as LIU, these games tend to serve as a learning experience as well.
“It’s been really great playing these big schools and big teams. We’ve been able to sharpen our skills a lot,” said Jacob Johnson, a redshirt sophomore from Minneapolis.
“We’ve grown a lot as a team. You know, we’re a really new team, a lot of new players, people that have never played together. Playing against these bigger schools and bigger environments has really given us a chance to come together as a team and learn a lot about each other.”
The Difficulties in Building a Program
While LIU played a special conference opener at the home of their NBA neighbors, most Shark home games take place at the Steinberg Wellness Center.
The complex features an NCAA regulation-size swimming pool and a state-of-the-art fitness center and weight room, in addition to the 2,500-seat basketball arena. The small, intimate nature of the arena creates a unique atmosphere, even if the crowd size is a far cry from Duke’s Cameron Indoor Arena.
But for LIU, the low-key nature of the program is a testament to how this team operates.
They may not be the flashiest or best team on paper, but the work they put in behind the scenes is impressive given the current state of the program.
LIU’s roster is composed of four transfers from other D1 schools and one from a Wyoming JUCO. There are three freshmen as well. Combine those two aspects, and you’re looking at a roster with little time to develop chemistry with one another.
But still, that doesn’t rattle this humble and motivated group of student-athletes.
“A lot of us came here in this first [fall] semester, so we didn’t really have a summer to get together,” said Johnson. “The world’s kind of watching us grow every day. If you guys could see us in practice, there’s a lot of encouragement, a lot of getting to know each other.”
A Small Team in a Big City
In the largest media market in the United States, basketball is the king of the city. Played in playgrounds and gymnasiums large and small around Manhattan, the sport is synonymous with the hustle and bustle of The Big Apple.
But for a school like LIU – unfortunately under-recognized compared to their fellow D1 programs in the city – the media is unlikely to flock to the program, no matter how good they may become.
To this increasingly tight-knit group of players, representing New York City is nonetheless an opportunity of a lifetime. This holds especially true for Sharks who hail from the area.
“It’s big for me because I’m from here, so this is like home,” said freshman guard R.J. Greene, who graduated from Iona Prep High School in 2022.
Other players, like Johnson, have a unique connection to the city. Johnson played two seasons for the University of Missouri-Kansas City Kangaroos before entering the transfer portal and coming to Brooklyn.
“Seeing the pride that a lot of my teammates who are from here have for the city has given me a lot of pride to be a Shark,” Johnson said.
Intangibles Over Rankings
In the shadow of Seton Hall, St. John’s, and UConn, LIU registers as just a small dot on the map.
The wins will come soon, but it will take time.
Prior to 2019, LIU-Brooklyn and LIU-Post had separate athletic teams, but the rebranded Sharks come with a clean slate. The program is now in the early stages of attempting to reach the heights of its BlackBird predecessors. During that era, LIU made four NCAA Tournaments from 2011 through 2018.
For now, though, LIU remains a group of scrappy underdogs in their own city, state, and conference.
On the surface level, it doesn’t look ideal. But the LIU Sharks are everything the underdog mentality stands for. They might not be winning yet. But their unwavering optimism and commitment to the bigger picture mean more than any scoreboard could display.
“I think [the phrase] ‘underdog’ really captures who we are,” said Johnson. “It’s a group of guys who were overlooked by a lot of people.”
“Underdog to me is just coming out playing, not worrying about the ranking and just coming out to play and prove yourself and show the world who you are,” added Greene.
LIU is currently ranked 359th out of 363 Division I men’s college basketball teams.
But those numbers are moot points. Just one day, one game at a time is what the program is focused on.
Something special is budding in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn.
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