Rivalry's all good in the neighborhood

NEW YORK -- When people discuss college basketball rivalries, Duke and North Carolina are usually placed at the top -- two bitter rivals and perennial national championship contenders, just eight miles apart.

But when it comes to proximity, the "Battle of Brooklyn" has it beat.

No, we're not talking about the first major battle of the Revolutionary War. That's also the name given to the annual matchup between LIU-Brooklyn and St. Francis (NY), two universities separated by just seven-tenths of a mile, according to Google Maps.

The two campuses are so close, the St. Francis players and coaches plan to walk to the game at LIU on Sunday (4:30 p.m., airing on MSG), weather permitting. It takes only 15 minutes, as confirmed by this ESPNNewYork.com reporter on Friday afternoon.

"I know you've got Duke-North Carolina, you've got Michigan-Ohio State, you've got all these great rivalries. But ours is just so unique, because of the location," LIU-Brooklyn coach Jim Ferry said on Friday morning. "In this big huge city, there's these two small schools that are really close."

The two universities do have their differences. St. Francis, which dubs itself the Small College of Big Dreams, is a church-affiliated liberal arts school with approximately 2,600 students, almost entirely undergraduates, very few of whom live on campus.

LIU-Brooklyn is a private institution with about three times as many students, a large chunk pursuing graduate degrees and with many more living in on-campus housing.

But there's plenty of intermingling between the two schools -- including the basketball players, who also compete against each other in the summer at open gyms at each school. "Everybody knows each other -- the administrators, the coaches, the players, students," St. Francis coach Glenn Braica said on Friday afternoon. "It's a friendly rivalry, but a great rivalry."

LIU has had the upper hand of late. The Blackbirds went 27-6 a season ago, winning the Northeast Conference regular-season and conference tournament titles. LIU was awarded a No. 15 seed in the East Regional and hung tough against No. 2 North Carolina in Charlotte, N.C., before losing 102-87.

The Blackbirds were picked to win the NEC again this season but struggled out of the gate, losing six of their first 11 games. Ten of those 11 games were played away from home.

"We knew we had a lot of talent back from the championship team we had last year, which was a pretty special group, but we also graduated two 1,000-point scorers," Ferry said. "So we knew there was going to be a little void -- even though we had all these guys back, we had guys playing in different roles. We knew we weren't going to be as deep as we were last year, so we kind of had to evolve."

LIU (18-7, 12-1 NEC) is on a roll now, though, winning 13-of-14 since that point, led by 6-foot-7 junior forwards Julian Boyd (16.7 ppg, 9.3 rpg) and Jamal Olasewere (16.7 ppg, 7.6 rpg). "They're just such versatile forwards," Ferry said. "People have a hard time matching up with them because they can bang with you inside and really score inside; they can step out and really drive the basketball, which is rare for forwards. And they both can shoot the ball."

The Blackbirds are winning games the same way they did last season -- by outscoring their opponents. LIU is averaging 80.1 points per game, eighth-most in the country, and is second in the nation in free throws attempted and made.

St. Francis, one of the five remaining original Division I schools to never make the NCAA tournament, is a big surprise after being picked to finish 11th out of 12 teams in the NEC preseason coaches' poll. Instead, the Terriers (13-11, 10-3 NEC) find themselves in third place, two games behind LIU and one game behind another New York City rival, Wagner.

"I think we're ahead of schedule," said Braica, in his second year as head coach. "That doesn't mean I'm satisfied."

The Terriers went 15-15 a season ago, then said goodbye to Ricky Cadell, the school's all-time leading scorer, as well as Akeem Bennett, the NEC Defensive Player of the Year. Then starting point guard Dre Calloway went down with a season-ending shoulder injury in November after playing just five games.

"We were very concerned once that happened, because those three guys won us a lot of games last year and helped us turn it around," Braica said. "Fortunately, guys have stepped up."

It's been a true team effort -- six guys are averaging between 7.5 and 12.1 points per game, with no one averaging more. Senior Stefan Perunicic, a 6-foot-6 shooter with deep range, is the top scorer, followed by 6-2 sophomore guard Ben Mockford (12.0 ppg) and 6-6 junior forward Akeem Johnson (11.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg).

St. Francis doesn't run quite as much as LIU but will hurt you from beyond the arc, No. 27 in the country in 3-pointers made per game (8.3). But the Terriers turn the ball over an average of 16.5 times, which ranks No. 322 out of 338 teams in Division I, and foul opponents 21.3 times per game (No. 324).

These two teams actually play each other twice this week -- LIU won 86-77 at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, following St. John's loss to Cincinnati. But the game on Sunday is the one that counts as the Battle of Brooklyn, with the winner taking home the coveted plaque, which LIU currently has hanging on its locker room wall.

It will be the 96th matchup in the series, dating back to 1928-29, with LIU currently holding a 59-36 edge.

Despite the fact that both rosters feature several players from outside New York -- and even a few from outside the U.S. -- the players sounded fired up on Friday. "It's like a playoff game," LIU junior guard C.J. Garner said. "A lot of trash-talking goes on. It's physical. And it usually goes down to the wire. So both teams usually come out ready to play. We live so close together -- it's for bragging rights."

Johnson, a St. Francis forward and Brooklyn native, dreamed about playing in this game since high school. "I definitely knew the Battle of Brooklyn, and the history of it. I definitely could see myself playing in it," Johnson said. "I liked the crowd, I liked the intensity; everybody comes out to the game, and it's a great feeling."

By the way, the Battle of Brooklyn has a flair for the dramatic. Last season, Garner won it for LIU on a buzzer-beater. Two seasons ago, St. Francis won in triple overtime.

"It's crazy," Braica said of the rivalry. "Anything can happen in this thing."