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Tsuj’s Ten: Mihalich’s milestone, Griffs prep for ‘Cuse

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

Niagara head coach Joe Mihalich’s 250 wins may pale in comparison to Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 945, but he’s the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s all-time wins leader, and he’s still chugging along in season No. 15.

Averaging just shy of 18 wins per season, Mihalich almost always fields a competitive, high-energy team that fits snugly in arguably Western New York’s best arena to watch college basketball: the cozy Gallagher Center.

With the Purple Eagles’ 75-59 victory over non-conference foe Hartford, Mihalich notched his milestone victory in front of Niagara’s home crowd. The longest tenured gaffer in the Big 4, Mihalich is just 56 years old, so several more wins could be in his future.

1) A little sloppy: Niagara and Hartford evenly split 44 turnovers, and the Purple Eagles’ problem with coughing the ball up is natural considering the team’s blistering pace on offense. Twenty-two giveaways is a little extreme, especially after the 9:15 assist to turnover ratio against UB, and that’s an area that Mihalich’s crew will need to address in its quest for a MAAC title.

The Purple Eagles are vulnerable when opponents manage to dictate the tempo, just as the UB Bulls did in their 77-67 win at Alumni Arena. Here’s what University at Buffalo coach Reggie Witherspoon said about how important controlling the pace was against Niagara:

“Absolutely huge. Tempo was such a big part of this,” the longtime UB coach said. “[Niagara] played zone, and we anticipated that, but it allowed us to control the tempo of the game. There’s still a temptation to rip and run a little bit, and we were able to function pretty well in [the slower] tempo and still score points—it wasn’t like we were walking it up and trying to win 46-40; we were just trying to control the tempo of the game.”

2) Playing fast: Niagara plays fast not only because it’s a very watchable brand of basketball, but because the Purple Eagles’ personnel is well-suited for an up-and-down style. Juan’ya Green, Antoine Mason, Marvin Jordan, Ameen Tanksley and Tahjere McCall are terrific athletes, and a true big man was absent from the rotation. Now that 6’8, 250 pound senior Devon White, a transfer from La Salle University, is back in the lineup after a serious Achilles injury, the Purple Eagles are a little more balanced—especially in the half-court and in their zone defense.

Mihalich didn’t mince his words when talking about the value of a tough out-of-conference schedule and the debut of White, who he expects to be a vital cog in Niagara’s run to the MAAC Championship.

“These first nine games—I don’t know if we’ve ever had a tougher first nine games,” Mihalich explained. “Five in a row on the road, two best league teams on the road, Bucknell and New Mexico State at home that are really good teams, at Oregon State—but to be the best, you have to play the best. We got better [against UB], we don’t have much to show for it, but we got better. We can win our league—especially with [White]—that’s what we’re trying to do, win the league.”

3) White’s surprise: Mihalich gave no hints leading up to Saturday that White would suit up, even though the big man had been practicing with the team for over a week. Because Joe Thomas wasn’t available for the road contest and White had been cleared by doctors, Mihalich decided to take the chance of inserting White into his starting five. He winded quickly and still looks a few pounds over his playing weight, but his mere presence troubled UB’s Javon McCrea, who was held without a field goal for the second time in his career (freshman year vs. Central Michigan.)

“We want him to be 100% Jan. 3,” Mihalich said, referring to the next slate of MAAC games, “and maybe the best thing is to have him get the rust out by playing the next three or four games.” White played 15 foul-plagued minutes against Hartford, registering eight points, four rebounds and two blocks. Once his conditioning improves, the fouls will probably decrease.

4) Griffin explosion: Canisius boosted its record to 6-1 overall with its second conference win in a row, a 94-82 thumping of Marist. The chemistry between star guards Billy Baron and Harold Washington continues to bloom, as the coach’s son dropped 16 points and 11 assists while Washington led the Griffs with 25 points, including six three-pointers. Burly junior Chris Manhertz pulled down a career-high 18 rebounds in 31 minutes as Canisius dominated the glass 51-32.

Even Isaac Sosa, who’d averaged only 13 minutes over his previous four games, saw 21 minutes on the floor and sank three treys. Senior Alshwan Hymes, who’s accepted a role off the bench after playing 30+ minutes in 28 of the 30 games last year, hit three as well in the Griffs’ 17-for-36 . Hymes hasn’t played more than 23 minutes in a contest yet this year,

5) Bring on the Orange: Undefeated Syracuse (8-0) ranks No. 4 in the country and boasts arguably the greatest depth of talent in the land. The trademark 2-3 zone of Jim Boeheim still befuddles opponents, as the Orange’s length both inside and out tends to force its opposition into careless decisions with the basketball. Sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams has more than capably filled the void left by Scoop Jardine, and his 10.4 assists per game are tops in the nation by nearly two dimes!

Canisius travels to the Carrier Dome for its biggest test of the season, a terrific learning experience for an NCAA Tournament-hopeful that’s trying to figure out how to win against strong competition on the road. The game will air at 7 p.m. Saturday on Time Warner Cable Sportsnet, and tickets for the game are still available here.

6) One meaty Orange: A host of highly-recruited big bodies patrol the paint, as 2011 McDonald’s All-American Rakeem Christmas (6’9, 242 pounds) is joined by homegrown 2012 McDonald’s participant DaJuan Coleman (6’9, 290 pounds). You can’t teach size, and the ability to sub in Baye Keita, a 6’10 junior with experience, is a luxury.

I’m not sold on Brandon Triche—his percentages are very underwhelming (42% from the floor, 31% from three)—but he’s tough and battle-tested. After drilling nine threes against Arkansas on the final day of November, James Southerland is 0-for-December from three-point land, errant on all 10 attempts over the three games.

Nine players average 12 minutes or more—and don’t think the bottom end of the rotation is just getting minutes because ‘Cuse is winning blowouts: sharpshooter Trevor Cooney and freshman forward Jerami Grant are useful pieces to the puzzle.

7) Bulls not resting their hooves: Just because UB has 13 days off between its win over Niagara and the Dec. 21 contest against Washington State in Seattle doesn’t mean that head coach Reggie Witherspoon will go easy on his young team. In fact, considering the Bulls played six games between Nov. 10 and Nov. 20, the team really hasn’t practiced much together this season, and that’s played a role in the team’s 4-7 start.

“We were trying to prepare for a game more than learning from each other, and now after playing in games and seeing how these guys can complement each other, they’re starting to find that a little bit,” Witherspoon explained. “As Javon [McCrea] learns that Will [Regan]‘s going to stretch the court out, and Jarod [Oldham] learns that they’re not going to let him get to the basket every time…then there’s someone going to be open.

8) “Regan”-omics: The rate at which Will Regan is improving is scary—the 26-point, eight-rebound line he dropped on Niagara was definitely the product of a smoother offensive system with more ball-handlers on the floor, but the Nichols School graduate was wickedly efficient in earning MAC East Division Player of the Week honors. He’ll have opponents screaming “shooter!” all season when he drifts out to the perimeter, and if opponents concentrate on smothering McCrea like Niagara did, then Regan may post several more lines like this.

Niagara coach Mihalich had this to say about Regan’s breakout performance:

“I thought [Regan] was the crafty veteran—he finally figured out where to go to get a shot,” he said. “He got it going early—you know what it’s like if you’re a shooter: you make the first one and it’s almost like you [exhale] and say, ‘maybe it’s going to be my night.’ We always try to tell our guys that for the good shooters, don’t let it that first one be a good look—make it a tough one.”

9) Rising Regan, continued: Witherspoon wasn’t too shocked by Regan’s performance, however, noting that his marksmanship has been on display regularly:

“It’s not a surprise to us—Will’s been getting better and he’s been doing these things in practice, and as he plays in games more often he gets more comfortable and anticipate when his looks are going to come, especially against a team that wanted to play zone the whole game, it’s good to have another guy out there to hit those shots.”

The Bulls’ strategy to stretch the floor opens space for Watson and Regan on the outside and McCrea on the interior, and as long as the ball movement is crisp and smart, this Buffalo team has the makings of a zone killer. The jury is still out on how they’ll fair against good man-to-man, however.

10) By the numbers:

Canisius, 6-1—Kenpom Ranking: 146 (Improved by 60, so +60)
Niagara, 4-6—Kenpom Ranking: 162 (+14)
St. Bonaventure, 5-3—Kenpom Ranking: 103 (+3)
UB, 4-7—Kenpom Ranking: 152 (+36)

Previous Tsuj’s Tens:

Dec. 8
Dec. 4
Nov. 30
Nov. 27
Nov. 19

(All photos except Syracuse shot courtesy of Robin David Brown from the UB vs. Niagara game— full gallery here).

TAGGED: canisius griffins, college basketball, joe mihalich, niagara purple eagles, reggie witherspoon, syracuse orange, ub bulls, will regan, wny hoops

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