Saturday, April 24, 2010

Off-Season Report: Niagara Won't Slide

Here's the latest in the series of "10 Teams in 10 Days," an off-season look back and ahead at MAAC men's programs. Up, now ...

NIAGARA (9-9 in MAAC play, 18-15 overall)

FINAL 2009-10 RPI: No. 134 of 347 Division I teams nationally.

RECAP: The past season was not what Niagara was expecting. Returning were four starters from a team that set a program record with 27 victories the previous year. But the one loss, 6-10 center Benson Egemoyne, had an impact. The Purple Eagles' interior defense wasn't anywhere near as good without Egemoyne's presence. A variety of injuries, primaily to seniors forward Bilal Benn and guard Tyrone Lewis, also kept Niagara from being better. Still, it was a solid season for a program that has avoided the lows almost all mid-major level teams experience since coach Joe Mihalich has come aboard. During Mihalich's 12-year tenure the Purple Eagles have had just one sub-.500 finish.

WHAT WENT RIGHT: There was one "magical" night on Feb. 12. A sell-out crowd at the Taps Gallagher Center, a national television audience and the league's best team, Siena, not only as the opponent but trying to extend a 14-0 start to its season. For a night, everything came together for Niagara, which seemed a step faster and a lot more determined than Siena all night. The Purple Eagles put the only blemish on Siena's conference record, an 87-74 victory. It was the start of a four-game winning streak and a stretch in which it won five times in a six-game stretch before its season ended with a 69-63 loss to Fairfield in the conference tournament's semifinal round. When healthy, Benn and Lewis continued to be among the conference's best players. But, neither was truly 100 percent all year.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Primarily, the injuries. Benn missed three games, but struggled with knee pain most of the season. Lewis missed six games and rarely looked like the force he had been previously. There wasn't enough height. Niagara battled bigger teams all season. Still, it wasnt that far away from being much better. It lost three games in overtime, and two other games by one-point and 3-point margins. Had it won three of those ive games, it would have had a 12-6 MAAC record and finished 21-12 overall, more in line with what was expected. But, good teams win close games. Niagara was pretty much what its record indicated, a solid team that could have been better had its key players been healthy all year.

WHAT'S AHEAD: The program not only loses Benn and Lewis, but also Rob Garrison, its third-leading scorer, and fifth-leading score Demitrius Williams. Those four scored accounted for a per-game average of 50.5 points of the team's 72.2 per game and 22.9 of the team's 37.2 rebounds per outing. No MAAC team loses more production. That said, it's hard to envision the bottom falling out for any team Mihalich coaches. He has established himself as arguably the best coach in the conference. He employs an uptempo playing style that his players enjoy and causes problems for opponents. Still, the program has had "elite" level MAAC players almost annually, and don't appear to have one right now. Someone could step up, or a combination of a sold group could make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Point guard Anthony Nelson (9.9 points, 5.0 assists) is the top returnee, but sophomore forward Kashief Edwards (7.8 points, 3.6 rebounds) had a nice year, too. Freshman Scooter Gilette, a 6-8 center, improved as the season progressed and looked strong late. If he gets stronger in the off season, he could be the inside presence the team lacked this past season. A nice boost could also be coming from Kevon Moore, a 6-3 sophomore who becomes eligible this season after his transfer from UNC-Wilmington, where he averaged 9.1 points as a freshman. The top incoming recruit appears to be Antoine Mason, a 6-3 guard and the son of former NBA standout Anthony Mason.

PREDICTION FOR 2010-11: Solid, at the very least. Niagara won't fall far, if at all. But, how good it gets will depend on the progress of young players, the contributions Moore can make and whether any of its incoming freshmen can provide an impact. The guess here is Niagara will finish fifth, but could move into the top four if enough young players step up.

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