Thursday, January 3, 2013

WNY Hoops Odyssey: Niagara Men Make Statement

The Western New York Basketball Odyssey continues ...

Thursday night, Marist men at Niagara at the Taps Gallagher Center on Monteagle Ridge.

No contest here. Niagara ran out to a 13-0 start before the Red Foxes got their first basket after a scoreless first 7:20 of the contest.

It didn't get much better after that for the Red Foxes. The last time Marist was within double digits was at 20-11. The winners' lead got as big as 30, 84-54, at 5:23 in the second half.

Marist, a team built to play a slower, half-court game, never got the runnin' Purple Eagles under control.

Niagara had 51 points at the intermission, finished with a season-high 94 points and looked like the type team that certainly could cause considerable problems for any MAAC opponent if it can play like it did Thursday.

The outcome enabled Niagara to take a share of the early lead in the conference standings, the first time since the 2008-09 season that it has been in that position after three games.

"The non-conference portion of our season was for us to see what we could get out of it," said Niagara coach Joe Mihalich. "But, now it's MAAC time ... it's time to go.

"It's a well-balanced league. Hey, we could all finish 9-9 this season. But, right now, we're in first place ... one of eight teams in first."

Actually, Niagara is 2-1 and one of three teams statistically in first along with 2-1 Canisius and Fairfield. Five other teams also have a single loss, but have yet to play their third league game.

Observations ...

- Nancy Lieberman, the mother of Niagara freshman T.J. Cline, was on hand to watch her son, one of the top reserves for the Purple Eagles.

And, it wasn't an easy trek to get there. Lieberman was in Oklahoma City to do study work for an NBA game on Tuesday night, back in her Dallas home on Wednesday to conduct her own basketball camp and, then, was up early Thursday morning for a lengthy flight into the Buffalo area.

Lieberman, got a scheduling break with an assignment in Toronto (for a Sunday Raptors' NBA game) and can stay in the area to also watch her son's 3 p.m. Saturday contest against Fairfield.

Lieberman, a basketball Hall of Famer, is one of the sport's all-time great distaff performers and helped the U.S. win Olympic gold in both 1976 and 1980.

Her son, a 6-foot-8 freshman, is young enough to be a high school senior rather than a college player.

"We thought he'd go to prep school for a year, but he had a big senior year in high school and some mid-major schools offered scholarships (UC Riverside, LIU, Air Force and Niagara, among others)," said Lieberman, who is also the general manager for the Dallas Mavericks' D-League team, the Texas Legends.

- Niagara, ran a game-long up-tempo offense to near perfection, shooting 35-of-67 from the floor (52.2%), while recording 18 assists against just nine turnovers.

"I believe in positive turnovers  ... when you push it up the floor you commit more turnovers," said Mihalich. "But only nine turnvers against 18 assists ... I'll take that."

On the year, Niagara has more assists (181) to turnovers (162) and entered Thursday's game second, among MAAC teams, in assist-to-turnover ratio.

Niagara plays fast, but does not play out of control.

- Niagara's 6-foot-8, 240-pound post-player Devon White, a transfer from La Salle, continues to round into  condition after off-season Achilles tendon surgery. White, mostly due to foul difficulty, only played 14 minutes Thursday (six points, six rebounds), but is truly the missing piece in Niagara's game.

He made plays not often seen by a player his size at this level. But, Niagara coach Mihalich said White isn't yet at 100 percent.

"But, he's ahead of schedule," said Mihalich. "Initially we thought we might not get him back until January. Now, he's already gotten five games in."

Otherwise, the Purple Eagles basically play four guard. Three of them (Juan'ya Green, Ameen Tanksley and Antoine Mason) combined for 60 points on Thursday. Tanksley, who entered the game averaging 10.3 points and 5.5 rebounds, more than doubled those numbers with 22 points and 12 rebounds.

Junior Marvin Jordan is the first guard off the bench (5 points, 5 assists in 26 minutes) And, Malcolm Lemmons (11 points on 5-of-6 shooting in 15 minutes) is, basically, the team's sixth guard. There might not be a better "sixth" guard on any team nationally than Lemmons who looks like he could start for a few MAAC teams.

- Even while it struggled, Marist got nice performances, particularly from sophomores 6-6 swingman Chavaughn Lewis (17 points on 8-of-12 shooting) and 5-8 point guard Isaiah Morton (8 assists against just two turnovers).

There might not be a better-passing point guard in the MAAC than Morton, who delivered at least another 10 passes to wide-open teammates who missed shots. He could easily have had 12-to-15 assists had some of his teammates' shots fell. And Lewis uses a rare blend athleticism, height and an ability to contort his body on drives to get to the hoop and finish.

- A few miles to the south the news wasn't nearly as good. Canisius, which had been 2-0 in MAAC play prior to Thursday, saw a red-hot Fairfield team come to the Koessler Athletic Center in Buffalo and take a very lopsided 66-45 victory.

Your scribe didn't see the game, but none of the statistics looked good for the Golden Griffins, who trained by a two-to-one ratio at halftime (34-17) and for the first few minutes of the second half, too.

Earlier in the day, ESPN, on its website, "revised" its predictions for mid-major conferences.

Said ESPN: "Rhode Island transfer Billy Baron and his dad, first-year coach Jim Baron, have already led Canisius to a 9-4 (overall) start that includes road wins over Temple and MAAC contender Fairfield. So ...  go with the Golden Griffins."

Not long after those words were published, Farifield go a strong measure of revenge for a 67-55 home loss to Canisius on Dec. 7.

The Stags entered the game second among MAAC teams for fewest points allowed (61.6), so its work in holding Canisius to 45 points on 14-of-46 shooting (30.4 percent) was no surprise.

And, ESPN might want to revise its prediction and give Fairfield a mention as a strong contender in this year's MAAC regular-season title race.

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