Monday, June 3, 2013

Team Report: Transition, Defections Hurt Niagara Men

Here's another in the "Team Report" series taking a look back and ahead at conference programs.

Up now ...


2012-13 RECORD 13-5 in MAAC play, regular-season champion 19-14 overall. Won a MAAC tournament quarterfinal round game, 74-62, over Siena; lost in the semifinal round, 79-73, vs. Iona. Played in the NIT, losing a first-round game to Maryland, 86-70.

2012-13 RECAP: The youngest team in the league (four sophomores and a freshman were starters) matured quickly, getting off to a 10-1 start in conference play before a 3-4 regular-season finish. The strong early play, though, was enough for Niagara to capture the regular-season crown. It then played eventual MAAC tournament winner Iona tough in the semifinal round, but just didn't have enough inside to overcome the Gaels. It was a little disappointing that Niagara went 1-3 against regional opponents, splitting with Canisius and losing single games to both Buffalo and St. Bona's. The sophomore backcourt of Juan'ya Green and Antoine Mason were both first-team all-MAAC picks, the first time in league history sophomore teammates earned that honor. It was a masterful coaching job by Joe Mihalich, who only had three sub-.500 seasons in 15 years with the Purple Eagles. It was a good enough season for Mihalich to move on, becoming the head coach at Hofstra in early April.

WHAT WENT RIGHT: A young team matured quickly. Mihalich gave his players considerable on-court freedom in an up-tempo style of play, and that helped attract talent. Green and Mason were, as their all-star designations indicated, two of the league's top five players. Ameen Tanksley, a 6-5 swingman, also had a very nice season (11. 3 points, 6.0 rebounds), junior guard Marvin Jones (8.2 ppg.) did good work off the bench. Tahjere McCall, a 6-4 freshman starting point guard, was a significant contributor, as was 6-8 freshman forward T.J. Cline off the bench, particularly with outstanding long-range shooting. Niagara was still somewhat undersized in the middle, particularly when 6-8, 240-pound senior Devon White (who only played 18.6 minutes per contest) wasn't on the court. But, the high-scoring, wide-open playing style gave opponents problems and made for a very nice season for the youthful Purple Eagles.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Not a lot during the season, but plenty since the team saw its playing year end in the NIT with a loss to Maryland. There was the 3-4 stretch at the end of the regular season, but Niagara looked good in the tournament with a victory over Siena and, then, a strong game before losing to eventual tournament winner Iona in the semifinal round. By winning the regular-season title, Niagara ensured it had an NIT bid after the disappointment of being eliminated in the conference event. White didn't contribute quite as much as was expected from a transfer from a bigger school (La Salle), and when he wasn't on the floor Niagara literally came up a little short. It was when the season ended, though, that things started going the wrong way for the program. Start with the 56-year old Mihalich's departure. It looked as if the MAAC's all-time winningest coach (265 wins at Niagara) might just be on Monteagle Ridge until he eventually retired. But, a very nice offer from Hofstra which more than doubled his previous salary, enticed him to move. And, Mihalich took his entire Niagara coaching staff with him to Hofstra. Mihalich's spot was filled by Chris Casey, a well-respected Division II head coach at LIU-Post, who is noted for his enthusiasm, energy and a desire to maintain Niagara's up-tempo style. With any coaching change there are usually some player defections, but rarely were there so many that resulted from Mihalich's departure. Green (who this blogger felt should have been this past season's conference Player of the Year), and Tanksley both followed Mihalich to Hofstra. Cline also left, and will reportedly join Richmond's program. Malcolm Lemmons, an effective reserve guard, also received his release to transfer (no school selected yet), and it appears that athletic 6-8 forward Scooter Gillette, who had a year's eligibility remaining after he was a medical redshirt this past season, is also gone from the program. The loss of those five, plus the graduation of White creates a roster transition far above the norm, and far more than anyone would have expected.

WHAT'S AHEAD: Had the roster not undergone such transition, Niagara was clearly in position to make a run at another regular-season league championship. There is still some talent in place, but not nearly enough to expect it to contend for anything except trying to avoid the play-in round of this coming season's MAAC tournament. The players lost early ... Green, Tanksley, Lemmons, Gillette and Cline together would have been a group of five that, of itself, would have just about matched any other MAAC team's starting lineup. Talent remains, though, particularly on the perimeter. Mason (18.7 ppg. last season) will have to take on an even greater scoring load and is the early favorite to be the MAAC's leading scorer in 2013-14. Jordan is also a more-than-capable scorer and will also probably be among the conference's top point producers. And  if McCall makes the usual progress as a maturing player ... Niagara's perimeter trio will still be among the best in the MAAC. And, you can add to that group Rhode Island transfer 6-4 Rayvon Harris, another athletic perimeter player in the Tanksley mold. He might wind up being the team's top rebounder, as well as providing some outside marksmanship. The 6-7 Joe Thomas, a lightly used front-court reserve last season (9.4 minutes per game) is likely to be pushed into the starting lineup Otherwise, depth is non-existent right now. There are only four other players, as of early June, on the team's roster, and one of them, 6-4 sophomore-to-be guard Emile Blackman is a transfer from LIU-Post (12.7 ppg. there last season) and has to sit out a transfer year. The other three are incoming freshmen. One, 6-2 guard Karon Davis, looks like he'll be a contributor at either guard spot. The other two bring much-needed height. Dominique Reaid is 6-8 and Aaron Bodie is 6-7, but both weigh less than 200 pounds and need to add some bulk/strength to be effective college players. There are sure to be a few more additions to the team before school starts in September, so stay tuned. But, Niagara fans will be left to wonder what might have been.

PREDICTION FOR 2013-14: Again ... if everything remained in place Niagara was poised for a bright future. Even with all the defections, there's enough talent in place for the Purple Eagles to finish as high as fourth or fifth, particularly if the incoming freshmen can contribute at all and Casey can find a couple more players. A big-man transfer from a junior college program would provide a huge boost. As currently constructed, though, Niagara could drop to seventh/eighth/ninth-place range in the upcoming season's 11-team league structure.

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