Here's another in a series looking at conference programs.
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2010-11 RECORD: 5-13 in MAAC play, 9-23 overall.
2010-11 RECAP: A rare down season for the Purple Eagles, just the second losing overall record in Joe Mihalich's 13 years as head coach. But, that was pretty much to be expected for a program that suffered plenty of quality personnel losses from the previous year. The one significant returnee was senior guard Anthony Nelson, mostly a role player in the past who emerged as a legitimate mid-major level star in his final college season. He single-handedly ensured the proverbial bottom didn't fall out for the program. Without him, Niagara's victory total wouldn't have needed one hand to count. The team had plenty of other talent, but most of it was far too young. Nelson was the only senior contributor. After him seven of the team's next-best scorers were freshmen or sophomores, which is never a good recipe for success. Still, Niagara seemed to be coming together as the season went on and won five of its last seven regular-season contests, including conference victories over fifth-place finisher Loyola and sixth-place Canisius. And, then, it threw in an absolute clunker with a disappointing 73-61 loss to Marist in the play-in round of the MAAC's post-season tournament.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: Most of it had to do with Nelson, who became the first player in the 30-year history of the MAAC to finish with career totals of better than 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 600 assists and 200 steals. Nelson was also college basketball's "King of Thieves," leading all Division I players with his 3.4 steal-per-game average. The late-season surge was also a positive, indicative of the program's strong returning foundation. Mid-major level college basketball rarely has the consistent success (11 winning seasons of the previous 12) that Mihalich has built at Niagara, so the team's "down" season could hardly be unexpected, nor was it a total disappointment. Supporters of the program got to watch a year of development, and much of it was positive. Start with freshman swingman Antoine Mason, who averaged 16.7 points through three games before a season-ending injury. Fellow first-year players Marvin Jordan (11.8 points), 6-3 guard Malcolm Lemmons (5.9) and 6-5 Skylor Jones (5.2) all provided considerable hope for the future.
WHAT WENT WRONG: Too many top players (Bilal Benn, Tyrone Lewis, Rob Garrison) leaving after the 2009-10 seasons. The result was one veteran returnee (Nelson) and his band of youngsters. And, the growing pains were obvious. After a 2-2 overall start Niagara won just two of its next 20 games with losing streaks of five, six and seven games. Always known for its high-powered offense, Niagara struggled to score for the first time in recent memory, averaging just 61.4 points per game. In fact, it only broke 70 points six times all season, way down from a per-game average of 76.1 just two seasons ago. The team's core of young players either wasn't ready in terms of talent, experience or physical stature. Mason was clearly the most-ready of the young players, and he was lost for the season after three strong games. But, that will change soon. Then, there was this personal observation: Nelson, despite his standout senior season, continued to be overlooked. Arguably the league's most-indispensable performer ... and, unquestionably its most versatile ... he was relegated to a second-team all-MAAC selection in the vote of league coaches. How an individual who led the nation in steals, and established career numbers for versatility never previously reached in the conference's 30-year history, did not get first-team honors is beyond the scope of this hoopscribe's belief.
WHAT'S AHEAD: Should be a return to good days up on Monteagle Ridge. Replacing Nelson won't be easy, but the program has its next eight best players returning, and there's a little of everything. The team struggled inside for much of the season, but 6-8 sophomore Eric Williams came on as the season progressed. He, sophomore Scooter Gillette (if he can add a little muscle to his slender frame), 6-5 junior Kashief Edwards (12.4 points, 6.6 rebounds) and incoming 6-6 forward Ali Langford (21.6 points, 12.8 rebounds per game at at Hancock Junior College in Santa Maria, Calif.) should serve the squad well inside. Mason provides additional toughness from the backcourt and Jordan was one of the league's better rookies this past season. There are other solid performers in the program as well, and Mihalich will easily be able to go nine or 10 deep next season which is likely to mean a return to the all-out pressure defense, offensive up-tempo he has always preferred.
PREDICTION FOR 2011-12: Clearly better days are ahead. The hope is that Nelson's unrivaled work ethic and team-first mentality rubbed off on his younger teammates. The likelihood is that the team will have a nice run for the foreseeable future. The upcoming season might be one year too early to expect Niagara to contend for the top spot ... that's likely to be contested between Iona and Fairfield ... but the Purple Eagles should be right there battling for position near the top behind the top two.