Thursday, March 7, 2013

Men's Tournament Preview: Taking A Look at Niagara

Here's another in the series previewing men's MAAC tournament games.

No. 1 Seed Niagara (13-5 in MAAC play, 18-12 overall) in a 2:30 p.m. Saturday quarterfinal-round game against the winner of Friday's No. 8 seeded Marist vs. No. 9 seeded Siena.

WHAT NIAGARA HAS: A young team (three sophomores and a freshmen have started the majority of games) that has arrived a year before its time in the estimation of some ... but, not head coach Joe Mihalich. "I don't know what that means ... who puts the schedule together of when you're supposed to be good," said the veteran coach. "Yes, the kids play beyond their years. But, we stayed the course. Last year we played all those freshmen and they got better, got more confident, and got more good." Good, indeed. Sophomore Juan'ya Green is the leading choice by some (yours truly) to be the Player of the Year. Another soph, Antoine Mason, is the league's second-leading scorer. Yet a third soph, guard Ameen Tanksley, is Niagara's third double-figure scorer. Mihalich, the league's coaching "dean," is as good as it gets on the sidelines at this level, and isn't afraid to let his team play through mistakes, which allows them to play loose. The Purple Eagles will primarily try to outscore opponents, mostly from the perimeter. It also has the requisite post presence it didn't have a year ago in 6-8 bruiser Devon White, who joined the program this year after transferring from La Salle. The team also has considerable depth, mostly from junior guard Marvin Jordan, who can put up points in bunches; and, freshman forward T.J. Cline (7.7, 4.6) who was an all-Rookie Team pick.

WHAT NIAGARA DOESN'T HAVE: Easy to say it lacks experience, but the regular-season might have disproved that theory. Still ... three sophs, two freshman and a junior among the top seven scorers. The team also lacks an inside presence other than White, who missed several early games while recovering from an Achilles tendon injury and only plays an average of 20.2 minutes per game. His usual back-up is Cline, who is more comfortable on the perimeter. There was also a little late-season slippage. After a 10-1 start to league play, Niagara went 3-4 down the stretch (two losses to Rider, one each to Loyola and Canisius). Niagara also gets rebounded by an average of 1.3 per contest, but when its shots aren't falling it will struggle.

HOW NIAGARA CAN WIN: Just by doing what it did for much of the season, but there's still no certainty. The league's top five teams finished with either five, six or seven losses and teams that finished sixth through eighth could also make a case for having a chance here. Niagara, as it proved all season, has more than enough talent to get through this event (and, if it doesn't, it gets an automatic berth to the NIT). The backcourt trio of Green, Mason and Tanksley is as good as it gets in the MAAC, and Jordan would start for most other programs. The perimeter is a given. The team needs some strong inside play from White and, maybe, even from Cline to better its chances.

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