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Big 4 Basketball season preview: Niagara Purple Eagles

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

Meet your 2014-2015 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champions, the Niagara Purple Eagles.

Okay, I may be getting a little ahead of myself, but a conference championship two years from now is what Joe Mihalich’s squad is climbing toward. After finishing 14-19 overall, 8-10 in the MAAC last year—good for a sixth-place tie out of 10 teams—Niagara returns its top eight players in minutes played for the 2012-13 campaign. Here’s a preview:

Strengths: If Niagara could play five guards on the court at once and not suffer, then that’s just what Joe Mihalich would do. There’s hardly any balance on the Purple Eagles’ roster, as reigning MAAC Rookie of the Year Juan’ya Green joins a pair of score-first guards in Antoine Mason and Marvin Jordan, and underrated swing-man Ameen Tanksley to form a gifted nucleus. Ask Mihalich to talk about Green’s gifts, and you’re in for a long conversation—after the Niagara vs. St. Bonaventure tilt last year, Mihalich argued that the then-freshman was his team’s best scorer, facilitator, defender and rebounder on the evening. The scary thing is this: Green, voted second team in the All-MAAC Preseason listings, will only get better.

Although he can be frustrating to watch, Mason—the son of former NBA talent Anthony Mason—is a pure scorer, unlike his dad. He’s a load at 6’3, 210 pounds, but he’ll need to raise his percentages from 38% from the field, 27% from three and 65% from the line for Niagara to take the next step. Jordan is an instant-offense type of gunner off the pine, and he’s notoriously streaky. Tanksley may be the team’s second-best player after Green, even though he lacks the scoring punch of his fellow Philly recruit.

Weaknesses: Ugh, the frontcourt. After senior center Scooter Gillette, there are no proven big men on Niagara’s roster. Gillette isn’t very big himself at 6’8, 210 pounds, and opponents with beefy frontcourts will inevitably give Niagara problems. Mihalich’s crew can get away with a four-guard lineup with its up-tempo offense, but if other teams manage to dictate a slower pace that emphasizes a half-court attack, Niagara is in trouble.

A few statistical categories from last year are troubling for Niagara, too. The Purple Eagles finished dead-last in the MAAC in field goal percentage offense and second-last in field goal percentage defense. The lack of size inside rears its head with the Purple Eagles’ second-to-last finish in rebounding margin, too.

Instead of help arriving in the form of a freshman, Mihalich inked transfer Devon White, a 6’8, 240 pound bruiser from LaSalle, who has one year of eligibility remaining and can play immediately because he’s a graduate student. While he’s never averaged over six points per game, White ended the 2011-12 season second in rebounds for the A-10 Explorers at 4.7 per contest. He’ll be a role player who’s expected to clean up the glass and contest shots. His skill set blends nicely with Niagara’s returning guards, for sure, but will Gillette and White be enough inside? We’re worried.

Pivotal player: While White is a reasonable person to put here, much of Niagara’s success hinges on the development of Mason. Will he always be as erratic as he showed last season, or can he evolve into a reliable, team-first athlete that doesn’t stick a knife into the Purple Eagles’ offensive rhythm? Green will be excellent, but his supporting cast—especially Mason—must rise to the occasion.

Dates to circle:

Big 4 games:

Nov. 24—vs. St. Bonaventure at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester
Dec. 8—@ University at Buffalo’s Alumni Arena
Jan. 27—@ Canisius’ Koessler Athletic Center
Feb. 10—home vs. Canisius at the Gallagher Center

Other home games to note:

Nov. 18—home vs. WAC favorite New Mexico State
Dec. 16—home vs. America East favorite Vermont
Jan. 31—home vs. feared conference opponent Iona
Feb. 2—home vs. likely MAAC favorite Loyola (MD)

Buffalo.com’s projected finish for Niagara: 10-8, fifth in MAAC.

This Niagara men’s basketball preview is the first of a four-part series that will look at all of the area’s men’s basketball teams.

Friday—University at Buffalo Bulls
Monday—Canisius Griffins
Tuesday—St. Bonaventure Bonnies

(Header photo courtesy of Niagara Athletics.)

TAGGED: antoine mason, big 4 basketball, joe mihalich, juan'ya green, maac basketball, marvin jordan, niagara, niagara purple eagles

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