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Tsuj’s Ten: Return of Juan’ya, Canisius back to earth

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

At some point, a hot team will probably come back down to earth, showing vulnerabilities in a surprising loss.

Jim Baron’s Canisius squad suffered through that harsh realization a week ago in a 66-45 pummeling at the hands of the Fairfield Stags. Court-side exclamations like “A dagger by Sosa!” or “Well done, Billy” disappeared—instead, Griffins’ fans asked themselves: “Why aren’t we getting open shots?”, “How is Fairfield so stingy defensively?” and “Are these referees blind?”

Fortunately, the wounded Buffalo-based MAAC team recovered with a nine-point win over Marist two days later, placating panicking fans who thought the Griffs’ non-conference success may be an aberration. Lost in the shuffle of Canisius’ rise and brief stumble, however, was a terrific performance by the Niagara Purple Eagles Saturday, one worthy of considerable breakdown.

The magnitude of Niagara’s 71-67 victory over Fairfield was considerable, particularly in light of the Stags’ recent success.

“We talked about being tough early,” Niagara head coach Joe Mihalich explained. “We played a hot team—we beat not just a good team, but a hot team. They beat St. Joe’s at St. Joe’s and Old Dominion at Old Dominion, and too many people are doing that. Then they beat Canisius, who was playing well.”

The Purple Eagles are 1-6 away from home despite a marvelous 6-1 record at the Gallagher Center. Weekend road contests against Siena and Fairfield—a must-see rematch—will determine whether Niagara has turned a corner or if it’s just the team’s comfort at home that’s propelling them to marquee wins.

1) Juan’ya’s dominance: When Niagara’s star sophomore Juan’ya Green is playing aggressive and under control—a tough line to toe, obviously—he’s a joy to watch. The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Player of the Week scythed through Fairfield’s defense on Saturday—whether it was zone or man-to-man—without problem, and he was denied several assists because freshman T.J. Cline couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn from outside (0-4) and the Purple Eagles’ interior players struggle with catching the ball. Green’s line of 31 points on 9-14 shooting from the field and 12-13 from the line—plus four steals—was remarkably efficient, and several drives weren’t far from highlight-reel worthy. If Juan’ya can consistently post efforts like that, it’s Niagara that’s the MAAC champion, not Canisius.

“I thought Juan’ya played like an all-conference player [Saturday],” NU head coach Joe Mihalich said. Green added that Fairfield’s guards—Derek Needham and Desmond Wade—tended to overplay him defensively on the perimeter (often due to ball-screens), allowing him to slip back door to receive passes or cut sharply against the grain on his drives. The sophomore has a high basketball IQ, even if he’s not the most eloquent in press conferences.

2) Mihalich talks balance: In a lot of cases, “coach-speak” can turn into a ramble of humble-brags and generalizations, but Mihalich’s discussion of scoring balance holds some merit.

“We had the luxury of [Green] having the ball or Antoine having the ball, and if [Marvin Jordan] is in there you have to guard him because he can shoot, and now Devon [White] can score down low,” Mihalich explained in regard to his multifaceted offense. “It’s a balance, and I think Juan’ya is the first guy to tell you the reason he could play one-on-one so much was because [Fairfield] couldn’t help off of Mason, MJ or Dev now. Tonight it was his chance to take advantage of what’s there.”

3) Watching Mase closely: I haven’t been able to see Niagara play too much this year—the only two times in-person have been a loss to UB and Saturday’s defeat of Fairfield—but it’s apparent that red-shirt sophomore Antoine Mason has matured a great deal as a player. As a red-shirt freshman he was often erratic, turnover-prone and a gunner, but now he’s fit a little better into Mihalich’s team concept without sacrificing the flair and innate scoring ability. The former NBA bruiser’s son is third in the MAAC in scoring at 17.9 points per game, trailing only Iona guards MoMo Jones and Sean Armand.

Mason’s stat-line of 11 points on 4-12 shooting, three turnovers and four fouls wasn’t spectacular, but he was the only Purple Eagle in double-figures aside from Green.

4) Bizarre instance: Green’s exploits were so annoying to the Stags that, before a free throw late second half, a Fairfield guard leaned in to try to block Green’s free-throw attempt before he released the ball. Green was startled, but he still managed to can the freebie.

“I didn’t know what [the Fairfield guard] was trying to do—I was lost,” Green said in disbelief after the game. “Can you foul a guy on a free throw?” Mihalich chimed in. I’ve never seen anything like it in my lifetime, but it’s one of those weirdly memorable moments that must be pointed out.

5) Understanding the Stags: Fairfield head coach Sydney Johnson and star senior guard Derek Needham were quite sullen in the post-game presser, both looking weary and frustrated by the sour end to their Western New York road trip—a haul feared by most of the MAAC. Still, the Stags will be a very difficult out come MAAC Tournament time, as their defensive intensity and discipline can fluster even an exceptional offense.

“The charm of their team is that they’re such a great defensive team,” Mihalich said. “It’s hard to score on them. If you can get them to turn the ball over a little bit, it helps you score at the other end. We were able to get some transition baskets early on, and it got us feeling good.”

The scoring prowess of Maurice Barrow and Keith Matthews was most impressive to me over the games against Canisius and Niagara, while Needham looks more confident offensively this year compared to last.

6) UB blown out by white-hot Ohio: The UB Bulls faced Ohio at a very inopportune time—Jim Christian’s Bobcats were coming off an other-worldly showing against Marshall, a tilt where the MAAC favorite pounded the Thundering Herd 94-57, shot 65% from the floor and connected on 11-of-23 three-point attempts. D.J. Cooper, the MAC Preseason Player of the Year, notched a school-record 17 assists with 13 coming in the game’s first 20 minutes.

Not surprisingly, over-matched UB lost 86-68—a score that’s deceiving because the Bulls trailed by as many as 34 points in the second half before Jarryn Skeete scored eight of his 13 points in the final 3:36 to make the margin semi-respectable.

7) Misera-“bull”: UB’s strategy was to trap and stymie Cooper whenever possible, but that focus was a resounding failure. Cooper smartly found Ohio big man Reggie Keely regularly under the bucket for easy hoops, and Keely’s strong play (19 points in 23 minutes) opened space for Cooper—who finished with 21 points in 23 minutes, added seven assists and five three-pointers. There may not be a hotter mid-major team in the country right now than Christian’s Bobcats, who stand No. 15 in the Mid-Major Top 25 poll by College Insider as of Jan. 7.

For more information on UB’s loss, read this report by the Columbus Dispatch.

8) Freddy breaks out: We’ve written ad nauseum about the Canisius guards—and The Buffalo News’ Bucky Gleason wrote a terrific feature on the Baron connection in today’s paper. Opponents game-plan heavily for Isaac Sosa’s dead-eye from deep, and Harold Washington, despite struggling recently, is a breakout-game waiting to happen.

In the 73-64 win over Marist, however, it was Kansas State transfer Freddy Asprilla that excelled during perhaps the game’s most pivotal stretch. With both Heath brothers saddled with two fouls and 6:27 left in the first half, Asprilla knew he’d have to finish out the half, avoid foul trouble and conserve enough wind to battle in the paint at both ends. Three rebounds, two steals, a block, a strong post-move and two shockingly calm free-throws later, Asprilla had Canisius ahead 36-24 at the intermission with plenty of momentum.

“Freddy’s playing real bouncy, real athletic for a big guy,” Jim Baron noted. “He really took to Adam Kemp inside, and we’ll need him down the stretch because he’s got such a big body. I told him he’s got to get closer to the bucket—sometimes he thinks he’s Shaq, he gets eight-feet from the basket and takes two steps, and in college basketball that will be called a walk almost every time. He’s playing with a lot of energy and very physical around the bucket.”

9) Recipe for beating Canisius: The obvious worry after a strong non-conference performance is this: Conference foes aren’t stupid—they know how to prepare, diagnose weaknesses and won’t fail to be motivated for meaningful clashes—especially in front of a boisterous home crowd. That’s why you see so many upsets in conference play.

With the Griffs, the recipe for beating them is fairly simple. Be physical with the guards, close out very hard on Sosa and pray that Canisius’ three-point shooting is errant that night. Slow the pace of the game now if necessary, avoiding the open long-range looks that Sosa or Baron find in transition. Force the Griffs’ big men into uncomfortable looks—whether it’s Josiah Heath from the elbow, Jordan Heath from deep downtown or Chris Manhertz from eight feet or farther.

Fortunately, a veteran coach like Jim Baron is very mindful of the repercussions of early success, as he said the following after Canisius knocked off Marist:

“Prosperity sets in and guys think they’ve arrived, but when you’re picked ninth coming in and you’re coming off winning five games, anything can happen,” he said. “You have to be real creative with challenging the guys each and every day, whether it’s rebounding the basketball, sharing the basketball, playing defense or playing smart.”

10) Shout-out to Chris Manhertz: We always knew the potential was there, even in his short spurts as a freshman under Tom Parrotta. Chris Manhertz would be a beast, and we were salivating at the idea of how quickly he’d develop. What we didn’t anticipate, however, is how consistent of a rebounding machine he’d be, especially during a very demanding early-season schedule. Listen to Marist coach Chuck Martin’s take after Manhertz followed his career-high 18 rebound performance with a 14-board glass cleaning on Saturday.

“We worked on boxing out and obviously paid him a lot of attention,” Martin said, shaking his head. “He’s got a will—that’s hard when kids have will, and he’s not accepting the box out. If you can get more guys like him, you’d have a heck of a team.”

TAGGED: big 4 basketball, canisius griffins, chris manhertz, college hoops, dj cooper, jim baron, maac, niagara purple eagles, ohio bobcats, ub bulls

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