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10 reasons to see Big 4 hoops at First Niagara Center - OPINION

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

Fifteen years have passed since the University at Buffalo (4-2) and Canisius College (5-3, 2-0 MAAC) squared off in a downtown neutral site.

To put 15 years into perspective, remember that the Memorial Auditorium—the Aud, as we knew it—closed in 1996, just two years before Marine Midland Arena last hosted the Big 4 basketball rivalry, and the venue has undergone two major name changes since.

The main feature of the evening, UB vs. Canisius, will tip-off at 8 p.m. following the conclusion of Niagara University vs. Davidson, which begins at 6. Time Warner Cable will televise both games, but it’s a little more fun to watch the action in person, right?

Certainly the sheer significance of the event should be enough to lure you from your comfy couch for an evening of college basketball, but just in case you haven’t been fully swayed, I’ll give you 10 more reasons why you should head over to the First Niagara Center on Wednesday evening:

1) The Coaches: Maybe I’m a little old-school in mentioning the guys in ties first, but I don’t remember a local head coaching match-up as littered with storylines as UB’s Bobby Hurley (pictured) vs. Canisius’ Jim Baron.

The former is a fresh face on the coaching scene but a legendary collegiate player; Hurley’s not only recognized for his knowledge of the guard position, but, increasingly, his passion (and sometimes maniacal antics) on the sidelines.

UB fans are accustomed to that kind of animation from long-time head coach Reggie Witherspoon, but thus far, at least, Hurley infuses even more energy.

Baron, on the other hand, is in the twilight of his coaching career, returning to Buffalo to coach the Griffs after a successful spell at Rhode Island. Maybe he’ll forever be remembered as a Bonnie—he played four years at St. Bonaventure before coaching there for nine—but the Brooklyn native will more than likely cap his coaching career as a Golden Griffin.

Niagara’s Chris Casey is an entirely different story—he rose from the NCAA Division II ranks, where he succeeded current Iona head coach Tim Cluess at LIU Post—and took over a Purple Eagle program in tatters after Mihalich’s departure and the related exodus of three major contributors. It won’t be fair to properly evaluate the new Niagara coach for at least two to three years, but he’s trying to fill some pretty massive shoes.

2) You’ll see the stars: The nation’s leading scorer by a whopping four points per game, Niagara’s Antoine Mason (29.4 ppg) will try to put the 2-8 Purple Eagles on his back as usual.

The son of former NBAer Anthony Mason, Antoine has attempted to weather the storm of losing transfers Juan’ya Green, Ameen Tanksley and T.J. Cline—as well as head coach Joe Mihalich—by scoring (and shooting) as much as he can.

There’s no question the tighter officiating has accented Mason’s strengths, as the bulldozing slasher gets to the free-throw line more than any player in the nation (12.2 pg) and connects on a healthy 76 percent.

3) The stars, 2.0: He’s basically what Khalil Mack is to the UB football team—Bulls’ forward Javon McCrea has been an integral part of the program for four years, nearly making the U-19 U.S. Olympic team after his freshman season and racking up accolade after accolade since.

Again, like Mack, it’s McCrea’s physique that plays a chief role in his excellence: he’s strong as a grizzly, quick as a panther and as fiery as a wolverine whose foot was stepped on (had to continue the wild animal analogy, sorry).

Wednesday is the perfect time to appreciate what McCrea has accomplished—often with minimal help from an inconsistent supporting cast—over the last four years. He’s a high-major caliber player at a mid-major college, and those don’t come around too frequently, especially in Western New York.

4) The stars, 3.0: Canisius point guard Billy Baron, the son of head coach Jim Baron, was our All-Big 4 Player of the Year last season, edging out UB’s McCrea because of the 180-degree change that the Barons fostered at Canisius, long a middle-of-the-pack club and occasional cellar-dweller in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

Think Canisius’ success hinges on Baron? In the Griffs’ three losses, Baron has totaled four assists. In Canisius’ five wins? Thirty-three helpers (6.6 per game). When the Rhode Island transfer is a confident facilitator—and when his teammates are knocking down open looks—this Griff offense can by dynamite.

5) Mouth-watering match-ups: Speaking specifically to the UB-Canisius game, some of the personnel match-ups are intriguing.

Canisius’ Baron vs. UB’s Jarod Oldham. Notes: It’s near impossible to shut down Baron, but if there’s a Big 4 player who might be up to the challenge, it’s Oldham. Long and opportunistic, the Bulls’ senior point guard could fluster Canisius’ star, who averages a tenth of a point shy of 20 points per game.

UB’s Javon McCrea vs. Canisius’ Chris Manhertz: While Manhertz’s Achilles’ Heel is undoubtedly foul trouble, he has the strength and tenacity to mitigate McCrea’s strengths. A burly 6’6, 235 pounds, the Canisius senior has gone toe-to-toe with McCrea over the last two years—he only played sporadically as a freshman—but he’s fouled out rather quickly on both occasions. Can he stay on the court long enough Wednesday to make a difference?

6) Wave(s) of the Future: Consider this a third match-up to watch: two instant-offense freshmen will go head-to-head in the finale, and they’re remarkably similar players.

First, UB’s Shannon Evans exploded in the Bulls’ win over St. Bonaventure on Saturday, dropping 15 second-half points and immediately brightening UB’s tempo.

While Evans has already earned the trust of head coach Bobby Hurley, Canisius freshman Zach Lewis is heading rapidly in that direction for the Griffs and Jim Baron.

Call the freshman from Connecticut an inefficient gunner if you will, but his 18 points (and four threes) in 16 minutes in the Griffs’ 93-78 win over Siena gave fans a glimpse of his potential.

7) The Locals: Oh, you’ve kept a close eye on high school hoops in Western New York? Maybe you’re a premier #PrepTalkLive hash-tagger? Cool. If not, here are the local ties of the players you’ll see on Wednesday:

Canisius: Two freshmen, Adam Weir (Canisius HS) and Jermaine Crumpton (Niagara Falls HS)—both of whom will most likely redshirt—are the more immediate locals, while the Heath brothers hail from Irondequoit and Phil Valenti graduated from Aquinas.

UB: Will Regan (Nichols School) is the lone Buffalo high school graduate, but McCrea (Newark, near Rochester) and freshman Deyshonee Much (Gates-Chili) bring further WNY flavor.

Niagara: None (former head coach Joe Mihalich preferred NYC and Philadelphia as his two primary recruiting bases, while new coach Chris Casey didn’t really have the chance to recruit locally when accepted the Niagara job late in the signing period). In fact, NU hasn’t featured a Buffalo-Niagara based player since Niagara Falls HS product Rob Garrison in the 2009-2010 season.

8) High-flyers: Don’t be shocked if there are a few highlight-reel plays in the UB vs. Canisius game, as Canisius’ Jordan Heath and UB’s McCrea are usually good for at least one violent put-back jam, while Evans and Lewis have a flair for the spectacular as well. Plus, considering 6’2 UB guard Joshua Freelove’s baseline dunk against St. Bonaventure, you never know when a moment of brilliance will strike.

9) Davidson: I suppose you may want to know a little about Davidson, Stephen Curry’s alma mater and Niagara’s opponent in Wednesday night’s affair.

The Wildcats (4-5) have played a challenging non-conference slate, as three losses came against ranked teams (Duke, Virginia and New Mexico), and the team rides a three-game win streak into the First Niagara Center.

Even with the absence of reigning Southern Conference Player of the Year De’Mon Brooks to a groin injury—his status is uncertain for Wednesday, but it sounds unlikely he’ll suit up—Davidson has turned to a trio of guards: former Miami (OH) guard Brian Sullivan, Tom Droney and Tyler Kalinoski.

During the win streak—which was highlighted by capturing the Hornets’ Nest Trophy by beating cross-county rival Charlotte—Davidson has averaged 93 points per game and has shot a ridiculous 55 percent from the floor. Despite a dearth of big men, the Wildcat guards can play.

10) You can buy tickets for Wednesday’s doubleheader here—$20 general admission and $30 for limited floor seating—and also remember that the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament will boast games at the First Niagara Center this year, so look into those tickets here.

(Niagara and UB photos are courtesy of Robin David Brown, while Don Nieman shot photos of Canisius Griffs vs. South Dakota).

TAGGED: big 4 basketball, canisius griffs, downtown, first niagara center, niagara purple eagles, ub bulls

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