Here's another in the series previewing MAAC teams. Up now ...
2009-10 RECORD: 9-9 in MAAC play, 18-15 overall.
2010-11 COACHES' PREDICTION: In their preseason poll league coaches picked Niagara to finish eighth.
KEY RETURNEES: 6-1 senior guard Anthony Nelson (9.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists), 6-5 junior forward Kashief Edwards (7.8 points, 3.6 rebounds), 6-8 sophomore forward Scooter Gillette (2.5 points, 1.2 rebounds), 6-8 sophomore forward Eric Williams (2.2 points, 1.6 rebounds).
KEY LOSSES: 6-5 forward Bilal Benn (13.5 points, 9.9 rebounds), 6-2 guard Rob Garrison (10.5 points, 4.2 rebounds), 5-11 guard Tyrone Lewis (17.1 points, 4.7 rebounds).
NOTES: Eighth place? Let's put that in some historical perspective. Head coach Joe Mihalich has coached 12 years at Niagara and has had one losing season (11-18 in 2005-06). Basically, the prediction by league coaches is that this could be the worst Purple Eagles' season in Mihalich's tenure. I'll believe that when I see it. Mihilach has a 223-147 record in the MAAC. Starting with the 2003-04 season his teams have been to two NCAA tournaments and two NITs. It's certainly not a stretch to consider Mihalich the conference's best coach.
That said, his coaching ability is likely to be tested some this season. He loses four players who each started at least 21 games last year and combined for 63.9 percent of the tean's scoring and 56.9 percent of its rebounding. And, last year wasn't one of the program's best, not with an unsatisfying 18-15 overall record caused in no small part due to season-long nagging injuries to 2009-10's two best players, Benn and Lewis. Still, there were some good moments, including a national TV victory at the Taps Gallagher Center over Siena that ended the Saints' 14-0 start to MAAC play.
This year's team is hardly devoid of talent. Senior point guard Anthony Nelson (his 5.0 assist-per-game average is second-best among returning conference players) has been an easy-to-overlook player in past seasons. This year, though, MAAC fans are likely to develop a greater appreciation for Nelson, who needs to take on an even bigger role. There are also three promising front-court players, all likely to start, in 6-5 junior Kashief Edwards (7.8, 3.6), and 6-8 sophomores Scooter Gillette (2.5, 1.2) and Eric Williams (2.2, 1.6).
There are also some touted freshmen on hand, and the best guess here is that Antoine Mason, a 6-3 guard and the son of former NBA standout Anthony Mason; and 6-5 Skylar Jones, who comes out of the rugged Mount Vernon (N.Y.) program, will be the best.
HOW NIAGARA WILL SUCCEED: Don't worry, Mihalich will figure something out. It seems like he always does. Will he figure out a way to win the league title? Probably not, but getting into the upper half of the standings isn't out of the realm of possibility, which would be a nice building block for a future that has just about everyone returning for 2011-12. Besides four decent returnees and some touted freshmen there's also Keon Moore, a 6-2 transfer guard from UNC Wilmington where he averaged 9.1 points and 4.1 rebounds per game as a freshman in the 2008-09 season. Moore was with Niagara's program last year for practices, and could step into a key role this season.
If Nelson steps up a little and Moore's stats are just a little better than when he was at UNC Wilmington, then Niagara has a more-than-competitive backcourt. The big question is the front court where Edwards started 20 games last year, but Williams only started four and Gillette none. Some freshmen will also have to step up, but none will likely need to be a significant factor.
COACH'S COMMENT: "Anthony Nelson has to have a great year for us, and we need some guys to follow him," said Mihalich. "Whatever Anthony Nelson does or says something, our younger guys need to follow his lead. We do have some guys coming back in Edwards, Williams and Gillette and they have to play like they've got a year under their belt. We've got new faces, and it's hard to say which ones are going to play, but some of them are going to have to play."
PREDICTION: It's hard to envision a Mihalich team finishing as low as eighth, as is the coaches' poll prediction. The guess here is that there's an adjustment period early and, then, a greater comfort level as the season progresses. There's a very good chance for Niagara to finish higher than predicted.