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Canisius tries to avoid third strike against Niagara tonight

Photo by Nate Benson

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

Even though they’re the lowest seed in the MAAC Tournament, the Canisius Griffins start from a blank slate for tonight’s first round clash against local rival Niagara. The Purple Eagles beat the Griffs twice this season, most recently a 60-57 overtime win at NU Feb. 15, but they’re not necessarily a shoo-in for a third consecutive win in the series.

MAAC Tournament First Round in Springfield, MA
#10 Canisius vs. #7 Niagara
Season meetings: 2-0 Niagara (75-56 NU at Canisius; 60-57 NU at Niagara)
Time: 9:30 p.m.
Odds: Niagara is a 6.5 point favorite
TV: none
Radio: Golden Griffin Broadcast Network with Jay Moran and Mike Scott

Forget about the Griffs’ atrocious 1-17 MAAC record for a second. Tonight’s match-up against Niagara is the best pairing that head coach Tom Parrotta could have hoped for in the first round of the conference tournament, and a win, particularly over a favored rival, may tighten his tenuous job security. The team’s best player, transfer junior guard Harold Washington, ended conference play on a high note with 27 points against Siena—an encouraging sign for the Griffins’ post-season hopes.

Led by guards Juan’ya Green and Antoine Mason, Niagara is talented but incredibly inexperienced and inconsistent, and Joe Mihalich’s crew, when outside shots aren’t falling, can lose to anyone. For instance, NU fell to #8 seed Marist 89-77 in the final game of the regular season, shooting a miserable 5-25 from three-point land in the process. In the narrow win over Canisius, Niagara shot 30% from the floor and 27% from downtown. If the Griffins can frustrate Niagara into a slew of contested threes, this first round game should go down to the wire.

Why else is this match-up a positive for Canisius? The Griffins can roll out a four-guard or even five-guard lineup with confidence, because Niagara’s bigs—Scooter Gillette and Joe Thomas—don’t really strike fear into opponents. With Reggie Groves’ return to the lineup and stat-sheet stuffing performance against Siena, Parrotta has the luxury of pressuring the Niagara guards with Washington, Gaby Belardo, Franklin Milian, Alshwan Hymes, Groves and David Santiago.

Using a 2-3 zone against Niagara (like CC did in the three-point loss) is certainly playing with fire; the Purple Eagles can get hot from beyond the arc, but there’s the chance that Mihalich’s crew is ice-cold and the Griffs can turn those long rebounds into transition buckets. When expectations are low, it’s a good time to take risks.

If you’re a Big 4 basketball fan with no particular allegiance to Niagara or Canisius, then Niagara is the team to root for. Even a short run would be valuable for Green, Mason and Ameen Tanksley, who would gain valuable experience in a high-pressure situation away from home. The Purple Eagles have the personnel—provided they can recruit a few competent front-court players—to be regular MAAC contenders for the next three years. Of their top eight in minutes played per game, four are freshmen, three are sophomores and the other is a junior.

The winner of tonight’s game meets #2 seed Loyola at 7:30 p.m. Saturday on ESPN3.

For another take on tonight’s game from a Canisius slant, check out Canisius Griffin sports editor Nick Veronica’s piece.

TAGGED: big 4 basketball, canisius griffins, joe mihalich, maacachusetts, niagara purple eagles, tom parrotta

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