Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Men's Preview: Niagara's Perimeter Play A Big Plus

Here's another in the series previewing conference teams.

Up now ...


2011-12 RECORD: 8-10 in MAAC play, 14-19 overall. Lost to Loyola, 86-73, in the quarterfinal round of the conference's post-season tournament.

KEY RETURNEES: 6-3 sophomore guard Antoine Mason (15.1 points, 3.2 rebounds per game last season), 6-3 sophomore guard Juan'ya Green (17.7, 4.6 assists), 6-6 sophomore swingman Ameen Tanksley (8.7, 5.9), 5-11 junior guard Marvin Jordan (10.4, 3.3), 6-3 junior guard Malcolm Lemmons (8.3, 4.3).

KEY LOSSES: 6-5 forward Josh Turner (3.4, 1.8).

KEY NEWCOMERS: 6-8 freshman forward T.J. Cline, 6-8 senior center Devon White (transfer from La Salle), 6-4 freshman guard Tahjere McCall.

NOTES: Last year was just the third losing season in the past 14 under head coach Joe Mihalich and, despite a 5-6 start so far this year, don't expect anything other than a return to the program's winning ways ... This is a team that Mihalich must love to coach. It's young enough to still need some guidance and development, but more than athletic enough to play the coach's preferred up-tempo style. There's also more depth in the program than in many years with the team going at least 10 deep ... Niagara has won three of its last four contests, including a major upset over preseason league favorite Loyola in Baltimore. The Purple Eagles have also beaten Vermont, the America East Conference's preseason favorite ... Iona's backcourt pair of Momo Jones and Sean Armand (a combined 42.3 points per game) might be the conference's most-dynamic, but Niagara's tandem of sophomores Antoine Mason and Juan'ya Green (35.1 ppg. combined) isn't far behind and is clearly the next wave ...Add to that duo junior guard Jordan (9.2 ppg. so far), Lemmons and good-looking newcomer McCall and the Purple Eagles have as much talent, albeit still young talent, in the backcourt as any MAAC team ... Niagara's concern, entering the season, was its inside game. But, freshman Cline (7.3, 5.5) has been good enough to push returnees Scooter Gillette and Joe Thomas deeper back in the playing rotation. And, La Salle transfer Devon White, a rugged 240-pound redshirt senior, is back after recovering from off-season Achilles tendon surgery. He's played in three games (4.7, 4.7) and is getting close to being at full strength. More height comes from 6-6 sophomore Ameen Tanksley (10.3, 5.5), who is listed as a guard but also plays in the front court ... Niagara isn't yet dynamic in the paint, but White will be an upgrade when he's back at full strength.

NIAGARA's STRENGTHS: As much talented depth as any conference team, going 10 deep. Outstanding perimeter play. An eventual "rock" inside with White, who along with fast-developing Cline, gives the team enough height around the post. Plus, they have Mihalich. And, if he isn't the conference's best coach then someone will have to convince me otherwise.

NIAGARA's WEAKNESSES: Until White is at full strength, there's still some concern in the middle. Plus, the team is one of the youngest in the conference. Of the top eight scorers so far this season, the only senior is White who, so far, has only been in a Niagara uniform for three games.

REASONABLE EXPECTATIONS: Like any young team, Niagara will have its share of ups and downs. But, it has already shown improvement since the start of the season and will likely to continue to progress. Loyola still looks like the favorite to win the conference, but Niagara has already knocked off the Greyhounds. Can Niagara contend for the regular-season title? Maybe, but the thought here is that the team might be a year away. Still, someplace between second and fifth is the Purple Eagles' likely destination.

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