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Niagara basketball’s future: Chris Casey turns purple

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

Chris Casey may be primed to enter his first Division I head coaching job, but fortunately, his predecessor has made the newcomer’s life paradoxically good and bad.

The 21st head coach in Niagara’s history addressed school administrators, alumni, current players and the media on Monday, introducing himself and laying out his plans for the Purple Eagles’ future. The 49-year-old thanked Niagara athletic director Tom Crowley, school president Fr. Joseph Levesque and his wife for their support during the half-hour gathering.

Why Casey’s life won’t be so bad:

1) Treasured inheritance: Like former C.W. Post coach Tim Cluess at Iona—where he’s won 70 games in his first three seasons—Casey inherits loads of talent, and at least thus far, there are few indications that any of Mihalich’s holdovers will transfer.

Juan’ya Green, Antoine Mason, T.J. Cline, Marvin Jordan, Tahjere McCall and Ameen Tanksley led the entire contingent of returning Purple Eagles in the front seats of the press conference, and while their presence doesn’t ensure they’ll all stay—Canisius’ Gaby Belardo said all the right things at Jim Baron’s introductory press conference before bolting for Florida International—it’s certainly a positive sign.

When Casey discussed his hour-long meeting with the returning cast, he commented on the attitude of the Purple Eagles’ team.

“[It was] an atmosphere of ‘we care, coach. This [transition] is important to us, coach,’” Casey recollected. “I walked away feeling great about the approach of this group. How can you not be a success with that kind of approach and that kind of attitude?”

2) Coaching style won’t be drastically different: Casey echoed much of Joe Mihalich’s preferred offensive system—up-tempo offense, a potent transition game and a reluctance to play half-court basketball.

This approach fit Niagara’s personnel to a “T,” as Green is most dangerous in the open floor, where he has space to slash into the lane and find Cline or Jordan spotting up on the wings. Mason is a bulldog plowing down the floor, driving hard to his right to either draw a foul, score at the rim, or both. At least Casey doesn’t plan on turning Gallagher Center hoops into “Badger ball.”

“[From last year’s team], there are a lot of similarities to the way I coach, and what coach did with these guys,” Casey explained. “A lot of ball screens, a lot of transition, a lot of trapping defensively to turn teams over.”

“I like to get up and down [the floor],” he added. “We averaged 80 points per game in the three years at LIU. I don’t like to call a lot of sets.”

3) He’s fiery, much like Mihalich: Casey recalled his meeting with Friar Levesque, noting that it’s the most placid he’s felt in a long time. Judging from his intense expressions, thick Long Island accent and strong enunciation of his words, Casey’s following statement wasn’t that shocking.

“It’s not easy to relax me because I have a high intensity level,” he admitted, flashing a brief smile.

The new Purple Eagles gaffer seems like a stark contrast to Cluess, who’s reserved and mostly composed on the sideline. I have a hunch that Devon White is happy he’s exhausted his eligibility, and we may see a much more fit T.J. Cline next season. 

Why Casey’s job will be tough:

1) It’s his first Division I head coaching gig: Inexperience at a high level is the most obvious risk, and it’s the same obstacle that Bobby Hurley confronts at UB. Plenty of promising assistants have flunked under the spotlight of head coach—like Casey’s former boss, then-St. John’s head coach Norm Roberts, who excelled as Bill Self’s second in command but couldn’t maintain the proud tradition of Red Storm basketball.

This is more an indictment of Niagara’s hiring decision than anything Casey can control, but nevertheless it’ll be a criticism from now through the end of his first campaign.

2) Big shoes to fill: Through his 15 years in Lewiston, Mihalich was a venerated figure on campus, essentially the grandfather of Niagara who took the Purple Eagles to two NCAA Tournaments in 2005 and 2007. He groomed college greats like Juan Mendez, Charron Fisher, Tyrone Lewis and Bilal Benn, showed integrity, possessed a sneaky sense of humor and was a terrific quote for the media.

“[Mihalich] did an outstanding job,” said Casey at the introductory meeting. “I spoke to him on the phone a couple times the last couple days, and I said Joe, ‘Can you make it any harder on me? Not only did you win, but you were the most loved person in WNY that anyone’s ever come across.’”

3) Uber-fast recruiting: With Scooter Gillette’s future in limbo and Devon White no longer a Purple Eagle, 6’6 Ameen Tanksley and 6’7 Joe Thomas represent Niagara’s tallest rotation players. As we saw when Niagara stormed through the MAAC en route to the regular season title and the No. 1 seed in the MAAC Tournament, there are ways to mask a team with limited big-man resources.

Still, when Iona’s David Laury III pounded the Purple Eagles in the paint during the conference semifinal, the demand for a big-bodied forward with discipline was evident. With three scholarship spots available—confirmed by the Buffalo News’ Rodney McKissic—Casey is already behind the eight ball in terms of recruiting, and there simply aren’t many gifted big men recruits to begin with.

While waves of Mihalich nostalgia will be expected in 2014—there probably will be some growing pains, particularly if we see an unexpected transfer in the coming weeks—Casey’s hiring ushers in a new era without a full-blown rebuilding phase. He’s ready to get to work.

“I wish tomorrow was Oct. 15 so we could get past everything and get started with practice,” he said to the audience. “It’s exciting to come in here and do some special things right away.”

(Photos are screenshots from the press conference at Gallagher Center on Monday).

TAGGED: antoine mason, c.w. post, chris casey, friar levesque, juan'ya green, long island university, maac, niagara purple eagles

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