Here's the first in the series previewing men's games and teams in the upcoming MAAC tournament.
NIAGARA (No. 7 Seed) vs. CANISIUS (No. 10)
Friday, 9:30 p.m.
NOTE: Arguably the most-attractive of any first-round or quarterfinal round game merely because it's a proverbial "Border War" when these two programs, separated only by a few miles, play ... even when its nearly 400 miles removed from their Western New York home turf. Niagara won both regular-season meetings, but only by three points in overtime in the most-recent contest between the two. Niagara coach Joe Miahlich says it best: "This game ... you love it, and you hate it. It's a great rivalry. When we play, nothing matters but this game between the two schools. You love to play it, but you also hate it."
WHAT NIAGARA HAS: Some momentum with four wins in its last five MAAC games, although the loss came Sunday at Marist, 89-77, when a victory would have pushed Niagara to the No. 6 seeding position enabling it to avoid this play-in round situation. There is also much talent, particularly on the offensive end. Guard Juan'ya Green is third in the league in scoring and fourth in assists and is as productive a freshman to come into the conference since former Saint Peter's standout Keydren Clark in the 2002-03 season. Green is the second-highest freshman scorer nationally on the Division I level, and teammate Antoine Mason is 11th among all freshmen in scoring.
WHAT CANISIUS HAS: A potent perimeter trio in juniors Harold Washington, Alshwan Hymes and Gaby Belardo. Hymes averages 15.3 points and leads the conference with 82 three-pointers made. Washington leads the Golden Griffins in scoring at 16.7 and Belardo averages 11.7 points per game. Chris Manhertz, a 6-6 forward, had a nice sophomore season.
WHAT NIAGARA DOESN'T HAVE: Experience. The top two scorers are freshmen as are three of the top four. And, the third-leading scorer is a sophomore. That type of youth rarely does well in tournament play against veteran teams, But, the future is definitely bright for the Purple Eagles, who look to be a team capable of developing into a contender within the very near future. There's also a lack of inside production. The team's tallest starter, 6-7 Scooter Gillette, only averages 2.7 rebounds per game. As a team Niagara gets beat by an average of 4.0 per game on the boards.
WHAT CANISIUS DOESN'T HAVE: The big blow this year has been the back woes of junior point guard Gaby Belardo, who has played through the issue but is not much more than a shell of what he was last season. Manhertz, at 6-6, is the team's only consistent post player. Kevin Bleeker and Josiah Heath, 6-10 and 6-9 respectively, have both had strong games but both are freshmen and often play like first-year players. Canisius also doesn't have many wins ...just one in league play this season, a mid-January victory over Marist.
HOW NIAGARA CAN WIN: Niagara will certainly be the favorite to win this game, and could do some damage if all the youth suddenly figures things out for a few days. Realistically, though, that usually doesn't happen. Still, if a couple of shooters get hot and Niagara figures out a way to overcome its rebounding woes ....
HOW CANISIUS CAN WIN: It could be competitive in this game, but to expect a team with one conference victory all season to suddenly win four straight and the tournament title ... well, that's a little too much to expect. And, Belardo, according to head coach Tom Parrotta, is only about 50 percent. If Hymes gets hot, anything can happen in a game, but still. Better days are definitely ahead, though. Three very talented transfers are in the program, ready to revitalize the Griffs a year from now.