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Improving Purple Eagles to face imposing Bonnies

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

After plodding through five games in 12 days, Niagara men’s basketball has had 10 days off to stand back and assess its season—it doesn’t hurt that the tough slate concluded with two wins.

A 61-56 win over MAAC foe St. Peter’s was followed by a gutsy 83-72 victory over Davidson, which was the precursor to the UB vs. Canisius showdown at the First Niagara Center.

Don’t be misled to think that Niagara is suddenly en route to its second-straight MAAC regular season title—the Purple Eagles are still a work-in-progress, a young team finding its away behind the leadership of dynamite scorer Antoine Mason and first-year head coach Chris Casey.

Heading into Niagara’s 5 p.m. Saturday tilt against Big 4 rival St. Bonaventure at the Taps Gallagher Center, the Purple Eagles—despite their 3-8 overall record—have several reasons to be thankful.

But first, if you’re interested in buying tickets—and there’s an NU vs. UB women’s game at 1 p.m. there too—you can go here.

In Casey’s first year as a Division I head coach, it’s absolutely vital for Purple Eagle veterans like Mason, Marvin Jordan and Joe Thomas to ease the transition of welcoming a mind-boggling 11 first-year players into the program (several of whom will red-shirt this year).

Mason was a giant among tiny boys in NU’s win over St. Peter’s, dropping 35 points—over half the Purps’ total output—and shooting an efficient 13-24 from the floor.

Hampered by a lower back injury against Davidson, Mason still dominated the final 11 minutes to help preserve a late lead over the pesky Wildcats.

At a whopping 28.6 points per game, Mason maintains over a three-point lead over the nation’s second-leading scorer, Creighton’s Doug McDermott.

Jordan remains a streaky shooter—the senior has yet to shoot over 38 percent from the floor over a season—but he was a steadying presence against Davidson and proved that the “Marvin the Microwave” moniker bestowed upon him by Joe Mihalich had a little foundation.

Thomas, a red-shirt junior, rarely plays over 15 minutes per game, but at 6’7, 220 pounds, he’s actually the biggest (in terms of weight) on the roster. Foul trouble has a tendency to follow him, though Niagara doesn’t exactly have a bevy of frontcourt options.

Mark Schmidt’s disciplined St. Bonaventure team has split since losing to UB at Alumni Arena on Dec. 7, a game in which they lost star shooting guard Matthew Wright to an ankle sprain.

The Canadian sharpshooter returned in a bench role against Wake Forest—a 77-62 Demon Deacons win—and gifted JUCO transfer Andell Cumberbatch has picked up the slack in his absence, averaging 18.3 points and nine rebounds in his last four tilts.

Beginning with the unexpected trouncing of Iona—the defending MAAC champions—Schmidt benefited from the availability of Jordan Gathers (24 minutes) and Dion Wright (29 minutes), two athletic “glue guys” who missed time to injury.

In addition to the scoring punch of Wright and Cumberbatch, St. Bonaventure’s imposing size will challenge the scrappy-yet-diminutive Purple Eagles, who will be tasked with corralling 7-footer Youssou Ndoye, 6’8, 235-pound Marquise Simmons and 6’8, 260-pound reserve Chris Dees (no relation to Rick, I presume).

As Iona head coach Tim Cluess admitted in an eye-opening article on LoHud.com, the Bonnies were both bigger and more feisty than his Gaels.

If Niagara can somehow hang tight in the rebounding battle, the home team could squeak out a victory that would be even more impressive than the defeat of Davidson.

TAGGED: antoine mason, big 4 basketball, chris casey, college basketball, gallagher center, matthew wright, niagara purple eagles, st. bonaventure bonnies

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