MAAC Tournament: Purple Eagles prepare for Saints
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • March 09, 2013 @ 12:42am
Before the 2012-13 season, the Niagara Purple Eagles were projected to finish fifth in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference through a coaches’ voting. By going 6-2 against the predicted top four—Loyola, Manhattan, Iona and Fairfield—head coach Joe Mihalich captured MAAC Coach of the Year honors and Niagara rolls into the conference tournament as the No. 1 seed.
Niagara (18-12 overall, 13-5 in MAAC) clashes with the Siena Saints (8-23 overall, 4-14 in MAAC) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass., where Buffalo.com will be on-hand to live-blog, and you can view the game on ESPN3 as well. Mitch Buonaguro’s No. 9 seed Saints outlasted No. 8 Marist 70-64 in the pre-quarterfinals on Friday night.
On the surface, the Purple Eagles are a heavy favorite. Siena went down to the wire last night—Marist had tied the game at 64 before Siena’s 6-0 spurt sealed the contest—and back-to-backs can be a bear for a squad with a seven-man rotation.
Previous meetings: At Niagara on Jan. 17, the Purple Eagles won 87-64. In Siena on Jan. 25, Niagara prevailed 78-69.
Why Niagara will win: If the Purple Eagles can dictate a frantic pace, it’ll bode well for the No. 1 seed. Juan’ya Green and Antoine Mason will be the two best guards on the floor and have major size advantages over Siena’s Rakeem Brookins—back from injury—and 5’8 gunner Evan Hymes. Hobbled by an ankle injury that forced him to sit for four games, Mason has sparkled in two of the three game since he’s been back.
When graduate student Devon White transferred to Niagara from La Salle, Saturday’s game is the type of match-up for which he’s been groomed. Sure, Niagara prefers to play small—four guards and forward Ameen Tanksley—but White’s presence will challenge Siena star senior O.D. Anosike in the paint. Although Siena’s talented big posted a line of 24 points, 12 boards, five assists and two blocks in 37 minutes Friday, his two-game average against the Purple Eagles is 11.5 points and 10 boards. He has yet to block a Niagara shot yet this season.
Why Siena will win: As streaky as Evan Hymes has been—he’s shooting 27% from the floor since the beginning of February (20-77)—the 5’8 sophomore has Niagara’s number. He posted a balanced line of eight points and nine assists when Niagara shellacked the Saints at the Gallagher Center, but he tied a career-high with 30 points in the second meeting. If Niagara’s outside shooters are ice-cold, Anosike dominates the glass and Hymes has another effective outing, Siena could very well hang around for an upset.
— Niagara’s T.J. Cline has had difficulty staying on the floor late in the season due to foul trouble, but when he’s managed to stay in the game, he’s been a factor as Mihalich’s chief big man reserve. As unorthodox as Cline is, his three-point shooting ability creates lanes for Green and Mason to slash, giving NU’s attack a different look than when White clogs the paint.
— Siena’s 6’5 swingman Rob Poole is a dangerous three-point shooter, and he missed Niagara’s blowout win over the Saints in their first meeting. His 14 points and six rebounds were a big factor in the much tighter rematch, and Poole comes off an outing of 19 points, five three-pointers, two blocks and two steals on 7-11 shooting against Marist. As long as Niagara’s zone defense closes out hard on Poole, Mihalich’s crew should be fine.
— According to the Troy Record, Siena’s emotional leader—scrappy guard Rakeem Brookins—wasn’t expected to be healthy for the MAAC Tournament due to back issues that have plagued him the last two seasons. Surprisingly, Brookins fought through 20 minutes Friday, giving the Saints one more backcourt option and allowing Hymes to snag a few breathers. We’ll see how Brookins’ back responds to soreness tomorrow, but his presence makes a big difference for Buonaguro’s club.
(Photos courtesy of Robin David Brown from the Niagara vs. Iona clash at the Gallagher Center—see the full gallery here).