Here's another in the series previewing conference teams. Up now ...
2009-10 RECORD: 9-9 in MAAC play, 13-18 overall.
2010-11 COACHES' PREDICTION: Picked to finish 6th in the preseason poll of conference coaches.
KEY RETURNEES: 5-5 sophomore guard Kayla Stroman (9.4 points, 4.5 assists), 5-8 junior guard Ali Morris (6.6 points, 3.6 assists), 5-10 junior forward Meghan Waterman (4.4 points, 3.1 rebounds), 5-10 senior forward Liz Flooks (12.5 points, 3.1 rebounds).
KEY LOSSES: Forward Rachele Folino (9.3 points, 5.7 rebounds), center Jaclyn Konieczka (5.8 points, 4.8 rebounds).
NOTES: Niagara was picked for last in the conference last season, started off with a 3-12 overall record and, then, won nine of its next 11 games. Among the victories was an upset of conference champion Marist, one of just three regular-season conference losses suffered by the Red Foxes. The turnaround coincided with some lineup changes, including the insertion of hard-playing center Konieczka into the starting lineup, and her graduation means the team will have to deal with the loss of her tough, physical play that epitomized the Purple Eagles' strong second-half play.
But, there are still some solid pieces in place, most noteably 5-5 sophomore point guard Kayla Stroman, the MAAC's Rookie of the Year last season; and first-team all-preseason selection senior forward Liz Flooks. Stroman's impact is measured by the fact that she played the third-highest total of minutes of any conference player last season. Flooks is as smooth an outside shooter as there is in the conference, yet also has a blue-collar work ethic at both ends of the court.
Flooks, though, won't find it easy getting open looks this season and the team certainly needs another player to step up and add something offensively. Morris appears the most-likely candeate. Waterman got significant playing time last season and was an invaluable defensive stopper. She was one of the best defensive players this blogger saw a year ago.
The Purple Eagles also struggled on the boards last season, getting outrebounded by an average of 11.1 per game over the first 15 contests. After that, though, with Konieczka moving into the starting lineup, the team actually held a small rebounding edge over the final 16 games.
They'll need more of that, and need to find a suitable replacement in the post. It looks like the fifth starter will be 6-1 freshman Katie Gattuso, whose father is the associate head football coach at the University of Pittsburgh. If she brings even a little bit of a football mentality to the court, Niagara could be OK in the middle.
HOW NIAGARA WILL SUCCEED: Continue to bring its proverbial lunch buckets to every game. That's how things turned around last year. The Purple Eagles don't have enough individual talent to overwhelm opponents, but they showed the benefit of outworking teams in last season's second half. And, with key returnees ... they likely haven't forgotten what worked in last year's turnaround.
There isn't a lot of scoring the team can count on, although Flooks is certain to be one of the MAAC's better offensive players. Otherwise, it's a conglomeration of hard-playing, defensive-minded role players whose chemistry paid dividends in 2009-10.
The team certainly needs to find a post player. If Gattuso is a reasonable approximation of what Konieczka provided last season, then Niagara could be in for another solid season, at the very least. If the team struggles to find an inside presence ... even one who only provides tough defense and rebounding ... then another .500 conference record might be the best Niagara can hope for.
COACH'S COMMENTS: "We'll play Kayla (Stroman) and Liz (Flooks) as many minues as they can stay strong and they can stay on the court," said coach Kendra Faustin. "Kayla is a great leader for us. We depend on her a lot, particularly in getting our five freshmen in the places they need to be. Liz spent the entire summer in the gym, which makes me grin ear to ear. She really dedicated herself to basketball this summer and came back in unbelievable shape. She is a real leader and the most positive person I've ever been around."
PREDICTION: Niagara will go one of two ways, and it all depends on whether it can find an inside presence. If that happens, it will contend for the upper half of the league standings. If it doesn't get the play in the paint it did last season, then it will be a team of nice perimeter players likely to finish in the bottom half of the standings.