Saturday, April 27, 2013

New Niagara Coach Chris Casey Off To Fast Start

If you manage to connect with new Niagara men's basketball coach Chris Casey right now, you might reach him by phone as he's driving to Philadelphia to do some recruiting.

Or, you might not reach him as he's at the Niagara campus meeting with or getting to know the players on his new team. Or, because he's around campus, meeting students in the school's cafeterias or other public places, drumming up program support for his program.

Or, because he's working the phones ensuring his staff from LIU Post, the successful Division II program where he was head coach for the past three seasons, would join him at Monteagle Ridge. Or, because he's locked in his office watching this past season's game tapes to familiarize himself with his new team.

You get the point. When you get hired so late in college basketball's off-season (the school announced his hiring on April 22), there's a lot of catching up to do.

"With everything else, I haven't even had time to get on the court (for individual workouts) with our players," said Casey, via phone recently. "I told the players that the calendar wasn't our friend."

But there isn't much doubt that Casey will catch up quickly, and that he's already been taking all the requisite steps to do just that, including this weekend's trip to Philly for recruiting.

"We've got a couple of scholarships available ... we need to add some players," said Casey.

But, there are plenty of good players left behind by former coach Joe Mihalich who, after a terrific 15-year run as Niagara's head coach, moved on to take over at Hofstra.

The team's entire starting five, plus some key reserves, will return from this past season's team that won the MAAC's regular-season championship.

One of the first things Casey took care of after his hiring was to meet his players, allow them to get to know him. It appears to have been enough to ensure there weren't any of the player departures that often come with a coaching change.

Mihalich left something else behind at Niagara that might help Casey's quest to keep the Purple Eagles strong.

He created and left behind a tradition of excellence, 12 winning seasons of his 15 ... an additional "era" to a proud Niagara  program that had suffered through more than two decades of mostly mediocre performances prior to his arrival.

It wasn't just winning seasons, though, that helped attract a strong array of talent to the conference's northern-most outpost. It was also the style Mihalich used, an up-tempo strategy that produced high-scoring games, the type any player desires to play.

It probably didn't hurt Casey's attempt to build relationships with returning players by stressing his intent to have a similar playing style as Mihalich's.

"I like to have a team that gets up and down and presses on defense," said Casey. "Really, you have to be able to play both ways. If your fast break doesn't work and you get into a half-court situation, you have to be able to play that way, too. Defense and rebounding have to be constant, particularly in a league as good as the MAAC. "But if the players work hard, you have to give them the game opportunity to have some freedom, and I definitely talked (to the players) about my intent to play fast."

It probably didn't hurt that players could look at Casey's resume and see the numbers that confirmed his desire for fast play.

His teams at LIU Post put up scoring avverages of 78.1, 83.4 and 78.5 points during his three seasons as head coach, more points in all three seasons than Mihalich's Niagara teams scored.

It probably doesn't hurt, either, that players could see Casey's past success, records of 18-9, 23-6 and 21-10 in his three seasons at Post, a program that now has produced two MAAC coaches. Casey's predecessor at LIU Post (formerly C.W. Post) is Tim Cluess, who has taken Iona to the NCAA tournament in each of the past two seasons.

Casey, at 49, doesn't fit the once tried-and-true mold of MAAC programs filling coaching vacancies with hit-and-rising young assistants from higher-level programs.

A combination of economics (salaries for conference head coaches have increased significantly in recent years) and philosophy have made it feasible for conference schools to attract more-experienced possibilities to fill coaching openings.

This year alone Siena's new coach, Jimmy Patsos, was the head coach at Loyola for the past nine seasons; Marist's new coach, Jeff Bower, got some experience as a head coach in the NBA; And, now, Casey with three years of experience as a head coach at the D-II level.

:Any experience you get as a head coach, whether it's at the D-II or D-III level (he was also the head coach at Rutgers University-Newark, a D-III program, for three seasons) has to help," he said. "It puts you in situations where you have to figure out how to be a head coach, where you actually have to make the decisions involved with the position. It helps you be ready when if you get a chance at this level (D-I)."

Casey not only has six years running his own program, but has considerable experience otherwise, too. Prior to taking over at Post, he had been an assistant at St. John's for six seasons, at Central Connecticut for three seasons and at Saint Peter's of the MAAC for eight seasons (six under Ted Fiore, two under Roger Blind). He has also been an assistant at Western Connecticut State, and St. Francis (N.Y.).

But, Casey knows the opportunity to be a Division I head coach is different and special.

"I'm very excited about this opportunity," said Casey. "Every coach in this profession works at trying to become a Division I head coach. I'm not only excited about being a Division I head coach, but about having it at Niagara."

Casey also knows that he has something else new coaches don't always have when taking over a program ... a strong returning group.

"I know when an opportunity opens up there are times when it's because the former coach didn't have a lot of success ... or, did have success and moved on (before a program's down cycle)," said Casey.

"But, that's not the case here. There's a strong group of players here, and it's clear that winning is very important to them ... that Niagara basketball is very important to them.

"My goal is to get out there with them and help them get better every day. I'm a day-to-day guy. I believe you do something every day that helps makes your players and your team better. If you do that, you can compete in the MAAC, which I know is a a terrific league with terrific coaches.

"If we can do that, we can compete for MAAC titles every year and compete to get to the NCAA tournament. Those are the goals for this program, and I'm excited about the opportunity to try to do that."

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