Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Tour Gives Youthful Niagara Early Start

Joe Mihalich has been working college basketball sidelines for 31 years, the last 12 of those as Niagara's head coach, but he is currently doing something he has never done before.

Mihalich is coaching his Purple Eagles on an international tour, a four-game trip to play exhibition games in Montreal.

These days it almost seems automatic that Division I programs, at least the well-funded ones, take the NCAA-allowed international summer tours for games once every four years.

But, it's a first for Mihalich. Neither the La Salle teams he served on as an assistant nor his current Niagara team has ever taken that kind of off-season trip.

Mihalich, though, knows the benefits, particularly for a team in transition, like his own. The Niagara coach gave us a few minutes earlier this week, talking from the team bus en route from Monteagle Ridge to Montreal, to provide his thoughts.

"First time for me," said Miahlich, about taking a team on an international trip for summer games," said Mihalich. "And, there are definitely benefits. "You hope it accelerates your progress, particularly for a team like ours that's so young. We don't have a single senior on our team. We only have three juniors, and one of them (Ali Langford) is a junior college transfer, so he's never played at the Division I level before. Basically, we've got two veteran players on our roster.

"It's a great chance to get together in the off-season and see what we can do and what we can't do."

It's not just playing the games that helps. Teams going on international tours are also allowed 10 full practices prior to the trip.

"Those 10 extra practices help," said Mihalich. "It puts you a little ahead of schedule. You try to put in some things you'll do during the regular season, but you also have to keep it basic. You don't want to throw everything at them at once ... that would be a mile long and only an inch deep. In practices, we're emphasizing quality of of a few things we'll do rather than quantity."

And, then, there are the games. Niagara got a win in its first game in Canada, knocking off the University of Quebec, 79-64.

"Obviously you're trying to win games, but it's also a great opportunity for our young guys to get game experience," said Mihalich. "And, it gives me a chance to see them in game situations."

Thirty-one years as a college-level coach, and Mihalich sounds as excited as he's ever been prior to a season, if a bus-ride conversation is any indication.

"My god we're excited," said Mihalich. "The excitement is about what we don't know about this team and waiting to see what develops."

It appears Niagara has plenty, although the youth and lack of prior experience in many cases might require some time for what the Purple Eagles have to develop.

What it does have, for one, is an experienced front court with 6-8 junior forwards Eric Williams and Scooter Gillette, who both progressed as last season went on and seem poised for strong years.

They'll get help up front by athletic 6-6 forward Langford, a transfer from Hancock Junior College.

Niagara also has a nice young backcourt in sophomore Marvin Jordan, an all-MAAC Rookie Team selection a year ago; and, 6-3 Antoine Mason, a red-shirt freshman who played three games last season (averaging 16.7 points) before a foot injury kept him out after that. And, sophomore guard Malcolm Lemmons was sharp in the tour's opener, scoring a team-high 20 points.

There actually is a a fifth senior in the program who looks like he'll eventually be a significant contributor. That would be 6-5 swingman Josh Turner who is not on the trip.

Turner, enrolled at Niagara since last year's spring semester, has not yet gained eligibility status due to academic issues.

The swingman averaged 27.5 points, eight rebounds and five assists per game at Sacred Heart H.S. in Connecticut in the 2009-10 season and, then, attended Southern Caroline Prep Academy in Charlotte, N.C., to bolster his academics. But that prep school closed in mid-year and Turner opted to enroll at Niagara.

However, he needs a full year of academic success at Niagara to fulfill eligibility requirements. If he stays on schedule, he'll be eligible to join the program for the second semester. Until then, though, he is not eligible to play or practice.

Just another new piece for a young, talented team in transition.

But, the current four-game swing in Montreal should help develop team chemistry.

"It gives you an advantage ... has you a little more ready to go at the start of the season," said Mihalich. "At least that's what you hope for."

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