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Tsuj’s Ten: Purple Eagles rolling through MAAC

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

Now that conference play is moving full-throttle, local basketball fans have a better idea of which Big 4 teams are NCAA Tournament contenders and which are floundering in rebuilding mode. The clues were apparent during the non-conference slates, honestly, but how Canisius, UB, Niagara and St. Bonaventure cope with an arduous slate against familiar opponents confirms our suspicions.

Contenders:

1) Niagara: Despite a rather odd overtime loss to Brown University (5-8; RPI 229), Joe Mihalich’s Purple Eagles reeled off two more conference road wins—a 77-58 thumping of St. Peter’s and a feisty 67-64 silencing of the revenge-minded Fairfield Stags.

Any road conference win is impressive, but St. Peter’s (6-10, RPI 251) could very well finish dead-last in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

Sweeping Sydney Johnson’s Stags is much more laudable, as Niagara forced Fairfield into 37 turnovers between the two games, hounding Stags’ star Derek Needham into giveaways and making life increasingly difficult for underrated Maurice Barrow. At the other end, the oft-careless Purple Eagles only turned the ball over five times, almost a season-low.

The offensive balance that Mihalich praised after the home meeting with Fairfield was on display again, and it arrived from a surprising source. Niagara’s guard quintet—Juan’ya Green, Antoine Mason, Marvin Jordan, Malcolm Lemmons and Tahjere McCall—who, on average, account for 50.7 of Niagara’s 74.1 points per game.

Reserve freshman forward T.J. Cline, who’d shot 5-for-25 in the four games since the New Year, canned 5-6 from the floor and both three-point attempts to finish with 12 points in 17 minutes. While the slightly awkward 6’8 freshman was probably the least of Fairfield’s pre-game worries—Green is a noted Stag-killer—Cline couldn’t have picked a better time to snap out of his funk. And hey, this bunny is clearly pumped about recent events.

3) Canisius: The Griffins have suddenly lost four of their last five overall and three of their last four MAAC games after opening conference play with two wins.

If you’d told Canisius head coach Jim Baron that his Griffs would concede 97 points and lose to Iona—but hold MoMo Jones to a season-low seven points in a foul-riddled 25 minutes—he’d tweak his mustache and give you a quizzical glance. The 10-point loss wasn’t too shocking—the Gaels, who entered as 7.5 point favorites, covered the spread—and white-hot Sean Armand connected on nine threes, while Canisius sharpshooter Isaac Sosa hit only 3-of-10.

While it’s a little irritating now that Jones’ backup, former Penn State recruit and Midland College transfer Tre Bowman, scored a career-high 24 points, there’s a rather touching story hidden here. The only reason Bowman is suiting up for Tim Cluess’ squad is because JUCO transfer Michael Haynes was murdered before the season, leaving a scholarship open at a grieving program. Bowman’s played sparingly this season behind the Arizona transfer Jones, but his uber-efficient 8-for-13 from the floor and 6-for-6 from the line buoyed an Iona unit that shot 54%.

So, you’re asking—particularly in light of the Griffs’ staggering 57-54 loss to lowly Siena—why are the Griffs still listed as contenders? If there’s an acceptable time to struggle in the conference schedule, it’s early and on the road. Canisius stands 3-3 in the MAAC, just two games back of Iona and Niagara and one game behind Rider and Loyola (Md.). Five of the Griffs’ next six games are at the Koessler Athletic Conference before a four-game road stretch. At least the comfort of home—where the Griffs are 6-1 this year—and no nagging winter bus travel will be in Canisius’ favor.

A quick word on the loss to Siena—those type of games happen to teams so reliant on three-point shooting, as Canisius shot only 30% from downtown while Siena’s Evan Hymes and Rakeem Brookins were hitting shots from the Hudson River.

Canisius was awarded a ridiculously low six free-throw attempts, and Harold Washington’s shot wasn’t falling—and more than half of his shots were from downtown. That’s a recipe for disaster, as Washington is most dangerous slashing to the rim and hitting on floaters or mid-range jumpers. The senior shot 36% from downtown last year and attempted fewer than three per game.

Pretenders:

5) University at Buffalo: The graduation of MAC Player of the Year Mitchell Watt, long-distance archer Zach Filzen and glue guys Dave Barnett and Titus Robinson hinted at a year of trouble for Reggie Witherspoon’s program, and the serious wrist injury suffered by floor general and top defender Jarod Oldham made circumstances considerably worse.

Ben Kirst’s live-blog of the 58-57 loss to Miami (OH) told two separate stories: a UB team that was often clueless and sloppy at both ends, but also one that mounted a furious 21-3 comeback in the final moments before Miami (OH)‘s Allen Roberts calmly canned two free throws to preserve what should have been a more comfortable win for the Redhawks.

Tracking the learning curve of starting freshman point guard Jarryn Skeete, the Canadian who is trying to fill Oldham’s shoes? Omitting the game against Notre Dame College, Skeete has shot 8-for-38 (21%) from the floor and 4-for-22 (18%) from downtown since Oldham’s injury was reported Dec. 19. For a heralded recruit with such an effortless shot, the results have been historically poor, and the fact that Reggie Witherspoon—who’s traditionally adored using veteran point guards (Battle, Gamble, Boyer, Mulkey)—must endure a freshman’s mistakes at perhaps the game’s most crucial position must be grating on his nerves.

Although he still fouls at an alarming rate, Cameron Downing had his best half of the season (11 of his 14 points) in the Bulls’ late flurry back into Saturday’s game. When aggressive and fit, Downing has shown that he can be a powerhouse in small doses—he’ll never receive more than 30 minutes a night—but if he can add eight to 10 points and active defense, Witherspoon can tolerate the inevitable foul trouble.

Conditioning has long been a problem for the 260-pound junior from Tulsa, but his potential to provide quality minutes must be realized if the Bulls have any hope of competing in the Mid-American Conference.

7) St. Bonaventure: The Buffalo News’ Jerry Sullivan painted a bleak portrait of the Bonnies’ present situation, revealing just how badly Mark Schmidt’s team is missing Andrew Nicholson and appreciating how stacked the new-look Atlantic 10 is with the additions of VCU and Butler. Pickin Splinters writer Ryan Lazo examined the 72-65 loss to Virginia Commonwealth—you know, the former Final Four team directed by Shaka Smart—and lavished praise on senior forward Demetrius Conger.

I’m all for moral victories because there are rare instances where these situations galvanize an entire team toward a winning streak. For the Bonnies, though, it’s not like the road becomes any smoother—they face Xavier, Temple and St. Joseph’s before the end of January (combined 29-15 record so far)—and St. Bonaventure is just 1-6 away from the Reilly Center.

Want to see some scary stats? St. Bonaventure is dead-last in the A-10 in opponents’ field-goal percentage, as rivals have shot 45.4% from the floor, and the Bonnies rank 14th in defensive rebounds per game. Sure, I realize these two statistics are connected, but if you concede easy looks and can’t rebound when you have the opportunity, conference wins will be few and far between, regardless of what Shaka Smart says about a team his Rams had just beaten.


9) Home games: There are home games aplenty this week in Big 4 action, so to insure that you don’t miss out, here are the local games through Sunday.

Canisius: home at 7 p.m. Thursday vs. Manhattan; home at 2 p.m. Saturday vs. Siena.
Niagara: home at 7 p.m. Thursday vs. Siena; home at 3 p.m. Saturday vs. Manhattan.
St. Bonaventure: home at 8 p.m. Wednesday vs. Xavier.
UB: home at 7 p.m. Wednesday vs. Kent State; home at 7 p.m. Saturday vs. Bowling Green.

10) By the numbers:

Canisius, 10-7—Kenpom Ranking: 135 (Worsened by 32, so -32)
Niagara, 9-8—Kenpom Ranking: 134 (+37)
St. Bonaventure, 7-8—Kenpom Ranking: 128 (-27)
UB, 5-11—Kenpom Ranking: 191 (-16)

Previous Tsuj’s Tens:

Jan. 10
Jan. 3
Dec. 30
Dec. 25
Dec. 22
Dec. 13
Dec. 8
Dec. 4
Nov. 30
Nov. 27
Nov. 19

(Header photo courtesy of Robin David Brown, as well as photo of Jarryn Skeete and Antoine Mason. St. Bonaventure banner courtesy of the Bonnies’ athletics Facebook page. Bunny photo courtesy of Niagara Purple Eagles’ Facebook page and user Bill Newton.)

TAGGED: antoine mason, big 4 basketball, canisius griffins, harold washington, isaac sosa, joe mihalich, juan'ya green, niagara purple eagles, st. bonaventure, university at buffalo

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