Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Speaking Up in Defense of Niagara

It used to be that the Niagara men's basketball team needed to score in the 80's ... and, often, in the 90's ... to win games.

But that's not the case this year.

There's something different about the Purple Eagles this season.

The results, though, are the same. Now in his 11th season at the school head coach Joe Mihalich has had just one losing season. His team is currently 21-6 overall with four regular-season contests yet to play. Between those games, and MAAC tournament games, the Purple Eagles will likely finish with a win total in the mid-20s. If they don't win the MAAC tournament and the resultant automatic berth to the NCAA's, they should be a strong candidate for an NIT bid.

This also marks the fourth time in the past six seasons that Niagara has won 20 games.

It has been enough for Mihalich to record his 200th career victory at the school in Saturday's victory over Fairfield. His .608 winning percentage (200-129) makes him one of six active coaches with at least 200 wins and a .600 winning percentage at a single school.

Until now, though, Mihalich has found good athletes and allowed them to freedom to make plays on the offensive end.

This year, though, is different in this way: Six of Niagara's victories have come when it scored 68 points or less.

The Purple Eagles, with a lineup that includes a shot-blocking 6-foot-10 Benson Egemonye in the middle surrounded by five superb athletes, have become nearly as good on the defensive end as on offense.

And the measurement of that is tangible. Niagara ranks third nationally in steals per game (10.4), and two of its players are also among the national leaders in that category. Guard Tyrone Lewis is seventh nationally with 2.8 steals per contest, while forward Bilal Benn is 13th with his 2.6 steals-per-game average.

Lewis leads the MAAC in steals, while Benn is second.

It has been enough for Niagara to hold its last five opponents to 55 points or less for the first time since the 1949-50 season.

Other accomplishments?

Niagara's 21 victories makes it, along with Siena (also 21-6 as of Tuesday, Feb. 17), among six mid-major level teams nationally with at least 21 victories.

Thirteen of Niagara's victories have come away from its home-court Gallagher Center, the highest number of away-from-home victories in the country.

Among the earliest signs of the "new" Niagara came in mid-December with a 67-62 victory at Drexel.

"We had to find a different way to win in that game," said Mihalich. "We had to be as good defensively as they were."

Since then Niagara has continued to be strong defensively, nearly as good on that end as it has always been on the offensive end.

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