Another chapter in the NCAA Tournament’s storied history means another trip through Dayton, Ohio, for the First Four.
For the sixth time in as many seasons, the Northeast Conference champion will be represented in Dayton as the LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds (18-16, 10-8 NEC) make their first tournament appearance since 2013.
They will go up against the Radford Highlanders (22-12, 12-6 Big South), entering on a seven-game winning streak, capped off by a three-pointer at the buzzer to clinch their conference title in dramatic fashion.
This will be the second matchup between these two teams. LIU Brooklyn previously beat Radford 81-59 in the 2011 Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament. Also for the second straight season, the winner of a First Four game will take on No. 1 seed Villanova. The East’s top-seeded Wildcats await the winner of this game for a Thursday matchup in Pittsburgh.
LIU Brooklyn head coach Derek Kellogg is in just his first season and already has the Blackbirds back in Dayton after a four-year absence (lost to No. 16 James Madison in the 2013 First Four). They are powered by junior swingman Raiquan Clark and redshirt senior guard Joel Hernandez, who also paced the NEC in a number of categories.
Clark shoots 55.7 percent from the field to lead the conference. Meanwhile, Hernandez’s 710 points this season are tops in the NEC as he attempts to keep the music playing in his final opportunity to dance on the big stage.
Returning to the tournament for the first time since 2009, the Highlanders come in to Dayton on a high note. Radford certainly made headlines when Big South Freshman of the Year Carlik Jones sank the game-winner to beat Liberty in the tournament title game, but others also have been instrumental this season.
Head coach Mike Jones was named Big South Coach of the Year in his seventh season at Radford, while junior forward Ed Polite, Jr. was named first-team All-Big South.
First Four: No. 16 LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds vs. No. 16 Radford Highlanders
Time: 6:40 p.m. ET (Tuesday)
Where: University of Dayton Arena (Dayton, OH)
Keys for LIU Brooklyn
In addition to the Blackbirds’ success shooting, they get to the free-throw line — and convert from the stripe — more than anyone in the NEC. Both their 763 attempts and 531 made free throws led the NEC and were among the top 50 nationally.
Clark and Hernandez are also the conference’s two best in getting to the line. If the game gets close down the stretch and free-throw shooting becomes a factor, these two have the experience and the skill to handle the pressure.
Keys for Radford
Radford’s defense will be put to the test with LIU Brooklyn’s scoring ability, but it has performed extremely well this season. Its 64.4 points allowed per game is second in the Big South behind only Liberty’s 63.6 and is 14th in all of Division I.
Contributing to that lockdown defensive effort is the aforementioned Polite, who does it all for the Highlanders. In addition to leading the team in minutes, rebounding and double-doubles, Polite’s 1.94 steals per game are the best in the Big South.
Radford boasts a stout defense, but the experience and veteran leadership of LIU Brooklyn will pose a threat to the Highlanders in Dayton. With Villanova awaiting the winner, don’t be surprised if Tuesday night’s First Four opener is a tight one that comes down to the final minutes. That’s what March Madness is all about, right?
Prediction: LIU Brooklyn 69, Radford 63
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.