Here's another in the series previewing conference teams.
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2011-12 RECORD: 3-8.
2010-11 RECORD: 0-18 in MAAC play, 1-29 overall.
COACHES' PRESEASON PREDICTION: 10th in the MAAC.
KEY RETURNEES (statistics are from this season): 5-5 sophomore guard Kayla Stroman (8.5 points, 2.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.1 steals), 5-11 sophomore forward Shy Britton (7.0, 2.4), 5-8 senior guard Ali Morris (6.9, 3.4), 5-10 senior forward Meghan Waterman (4.5, 2.3).
KEY LOSS: Forward Liz Flooks (10.7, 5.1).
NOTES: A 3-8 start, coming against some decent non-league opponents thus far, isn't reason to rejoice yet, but it's much better than a year ago when the Purple Eagles became the first team since the 2002-03 Iona team to go 0-18 in conference play and won just a single game overall. Need a reason for the improvement? How about finding good players at the two key positions, point guard and center. Niagara had a point guard for a short time last year in Stroman, but she was lost for the season in the eighth game. She is back at 100 percent of her do-everything offensively, ball-hawking pest defensively best. And, then, the team has one of the league's better centers in 6-2 sophomore Lauren Gatto, a transfer from the University of Illinois at Chicago, who had to sit out last season ... Gatto leads the team in points, rebounds and minutes played ... The team, though, does not have a signature star. No player averages double figures in points, or more than 5.9 rebounds per game ... Then, there's also the left-over turnover issue. Niagara averaged an astronomical 21.5 turnovers per game a year ago (against 9.2 assists). Those numbers are only a little better this season (19.6 turnovers, 10.3 assists) ... The team also lacks eight, besides Gatto, although 6-0 freshman Val McQuade has been playing well early ... There's also an experience issue as just two players, guard Ali Morris and forward Meghan Waterman are seniors. Both are role players, although Waterman's best work, on the defensive end, doesn't show up on the stat sheet.
HOW NIAGARA CAN SUCCEED: Cut down on the turnovers and find more consistent scoring. Sophomore forward Shy Britton looks like she can develop into a better scorer than her 7.0 ppg. average thus far. Stroman is also capable of more scoring as is Gatto. Someone, though, needs to step up to become the team's go-to player in key situations. As with most young teams, the experience of just playing will help Niagara develop as the season progresses. And things are likely to be better once league play begins, as many of the Purple Eagles' opponents thus far are as good as many of the MAAC teams. A win over Binghamton, one of the better teams in the America East Conference, earlier this month might be a harbinger of good things ahead.
PREDICTION: Clearly better than last year. Probably won't climb into the top six positions (avoiding a post-season tournament play-in game), but if the youngsters mature quickly it's not out of the realm of possibility. Anything will be better than last season, but there's enough young talent in place to think this year will be considerably better, and the future is bright beyond that.