Photo courtesy of LIU Brooklyn Athletics
By David Cordova
Eight months ago, all was well around DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn, as the LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds completed a successful season winning the Northeast Conference championship and making a first-round appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
In a conference such as the Northeast, or the NEC, as it is most commonly referred to, it’s all about survival, being that this league only receives one bid to be able to see the event that everyone all knows as, “March Madness,” or the “Big Dance.”
Every team in the league will do what they can to get to the finish line. But only one team will prevail every March to the NCAA Tournament. The finalist, or the second-place finisher, gets an invite to the NIT & then there may be a third team that gets an invite to the a postseason tournament such as the College Insiders Postseason Tournament (CIT) or the CBI. The remaining seven teams in the conference are all done for the season and have to go regroup for the following season.
Last season, the man leading the charge for the Blackbirds was none other than Derek Kellogg, who did so in his first season after coming over from UMass.
“I think it was rewarding, because the kids through everything that kind of went on, and me taking over as the coach, had great attitudes, I thought. In the locker room, they had a good culture,” said Kellogg about the experience of last season. “And they worked really hard and bought into my philosophy and into the vision we had for the season, which was ultimately, [to] win the conference championship, and hopefully go to the NCAA Tournament. It took them a little bit of time to get them to the level that I thought they were capable [of], but when it all kicked in, and especially Joel [Hernandez] and Raiquan Clark, kind of at a certain point decided to lock in defensively and rebound the basketball, and that actually let us play better offense and we were able to put some points on the board.”
He then added: “The basketball gods were with us down the stretch. We got three home games in a row, we played very well at Wagner in a great championship game. You know, every once in awhile, in the sport, I think good fortune and karma is on your side, and that’s what happened last year.”
When asked if there was any pressure after a successful season, he replied, “I mean, I think the pressure is every day in practice. Pressure to me is getting ready to prepare. I’m telling these guys, ‘Let’s just enjoy this process. It’s one of the things you get to do once in your lifetime, so you might as well have fun doing it.’ Working hard, coming to practice every day, and if we’ve keep good attitudes like we had this year, even through last year, I think we put ourselves in an opportunity to be in a similar position this year, playing in the tournament and have a chance to win three games in three days.”
With the graduation of Joel Hernandez, who was the leading scorer on last year’s squad, the backcourt now relies heavily on 6-foot-4 senior Raiquan Clark and junior guards Jashaun Agosto and Julian Batts, both of whom are 5-foot-11. All three are the returning leading scorers and will provide plenty of offense this year for the Blackbirds this season.
When asked about the impact that the three guards bring in a guard-heavy conference, Kellogg replied, “I think it’s huge, I mean, I think the most important thing is the way Jashaun Agosto has been in practice. You know, he doesn’t get as much credit on paper as some of the other guys, but I do feel like his leadership, his ability to win basketball games, and the way he runs our team and program is a testament to his character, but also how far I think this team can go.”
Kellogg also added more on Agosto when he replied, “We’re a little further along [in] where we are, knowing what the guys are supposed to do, [and] what’s expected of them, and he’s pretty much been the catalyst in practice and our scrimmage games to get this team going. That’s the expectation level, to be the best lead guard in the conference, to push your team every day, to know what I expect out of you, and the biggest thing [is] that he’s got a good winning percentage, and that’s the most important thing. He’s won 20 & 18 games in college, and led his team to the NCAA Tournament, which to me is what makes a great point guard.”
With LIU making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013, the local basketball community in New York City has been paying attention to the Blackbirds’ success and has shown interest in the program.
When asked how receptive the New York basketball community has been to the Blackbirds since their appearance in the Big Dance last season, Kellogg replied, “I think it’s great. I think they’re excited for what’s going on here in Brooklyn and LIU. A lot of guys that have never really made it to campus are coming by to watch practice [and] hung out some. As time goes on, I think that’ll help us open up the recruiting grounds in this area, which I think is an important thing for us to take the next step. But really, just the overall excitement in the community, people know where the campus is now, I think they have a good respect for the guys that are on our team. You know, these guys move around the city now, and they get a little more respect, and people kind of know who they are.”
Another good thing for the Blackbirds is that they are in close proximity to the Barclays Center, the arena on Atlantic Avenue, which is literally down the street from the campus, and houses the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets and the NHL’s New York Islanders. When it comes to recruiting, playing in a pro arena is something that is enticing to prospective players.
“I think it’s great. It’s just good to try to incorporate what they have going on at the Barclays Center. What we’re trying to do, which is continue to build a brand name at LIU and we have a great working relationship [with the Barclays Center]. And I think, lastly, it’s good for recruiting, I think the kids want to play in an NBA arena, they want to know what it feels like, the taste of being in the NBA, that’s the goal and dream of every young player that comes all the way up to my son’s 10-and-under team and we’ve got a great working relationship with these people, and I think it’s been something that’s helped our program,” said Kellogg about the Barclays Center.
When asked about what he likes about coaching in New York City, he replied, “It’s the best place on earth, it’s the greatest place to live and be a basketball coach. I say it every day, we walk outside my apartment over here and come over to Brooklyn. [There’s] not really a better place to be. My wife and I talk about [it] a lot, we’re fortunate to be in one of the best places in the world to live, from the basketball aspect to the social aspect to the schooling system for my son, and we’re a pretty lucky family right now, lucky to be around these guys every day.”
If there’s one thing that Kellogg knows, it’s success. A native of Springfield, Massachussetts, he played his collegiate basketball at UMass from 1991-95, and helped the Minutemen win four straight Atlantic 10 chanpionships, and went to the NCAA Tournament every year, including a run to the Elite Eight during his senior season. He finished fifth all-time in school history with 453 assists.
What’s interesting about this whole thing is that the coach during his time at UMass was none other than John Calipari, who is now the head coach at the University of Kentucky. Later on, for eight seasons, Kellogg was his assistant at the University of Memphis.
When asked what he learned from the Hall of Fame coach after playing for him and coaching under him, Kellogg replied, “I mean, Cal’s the best. From A to Z, I think he pretty much does everything, and does it at a good level, from recruiting, to scheduling, to the way he builds a program, the way he treats people that are around him. And I think the biggest thing is how you treat people, I think that’s the number-one thing, whether it’s your teammates, your players, your people that work for you. I think the one thing, sometimes it’s not the best way to do things, but I think if you talk to anybody that’s worked with me & for me, and most of the players that have come through will say, ‘You know what, that was a good experience, treats us fair and he lets us have a life other than work and basketball,’ and I think that’s important in this day and age, of where we are, so hopefully, that’s the mark we’re making and that’s not true, then, sorry.”
After nine seasons as a head coach at UMass, Kellogg is bound to do some big things in the heart of Brooklyn with LIU, especially with this year’s team. Now that he’s made it the next thing on the menu is to win another NEC title and to make it to the NCAA Tournament and to also go further in the Big Dance.
“Well, first and foremost, guys like Jashaun and Raiquan and Juice and Batts, and the guys that have come back have to be that stable force. And listen, we have to win three games in the [NEC] Tournament, which I think is, you know can go either way. We just have to put ourselves in position to be there. And if you actually are good enough to win the conference and have a good season in the NEC, I think you can beat somebody, just because I think this league is that good and that tough, and it prepares you. So we’re just going to stay the course. Like I said earlier, come in, work hard, have fun. And if you do that stuff, everybody will be fresh at the end of the year, they won’t be lethargic and that gives us a good chance to maybe do something,” said Kellogg.
He also added: “But we do have good players. You know, I think Raiquan is a very good college basketball player, [and] some of the other guys that are coming back, I love the leadership of Jashaun and Batts and we need [Raul] Frias to step up a little bit, and Eral Penn has made some huge strides, love the way he’s playing, and we have a couple of unknowns in Tyrn Flowers, and big Ousmane [Ndim], and there’s got to be one more guy to step up, whether it’s Shyheim Hicks or G [Ganlandou Cisse] or C.O. [Craig Owens, Jr.] or Ashtyn Bradley, one of those guys probably fills into that eighth, ninth spot, and if we do that, we’ve got enough guys, enough players to have a good team.”
With everything in place, it’s looking like there will be another good season at the Steinberg Wellness Center on the campus of LIU Brooklyn.