Here's another in the "Team Report" series taking a look back at the just-concluded season with a crystal-ball look at what might be ahead.
Up now ...
2013-14 RECORD: 3-17, 11th place, in MAAC play; 7-26 overall.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: In a season of much transition, there was play that belied the record. The team was competitive almost from day one, as evidenced with a 92-81 victory over a decent Buffalo team in Niagara's second game. Not much later came a very good four-game stretch: wins over Saint Peter's and Davidson, a two-point loss to St. Bonaventure and, then, a win over Brown ... The team was close more often than would have been expected, losing twice by a single point, four times by two points and 12 times overall by six points or less ... Individually, Anthony Mason came up big as was both required and expected. The lone remaining real standout in the program after four eligible players transferred out when former coach Joe Mihalich left the team for Hofstra, Mason averaged 25.6 points per game, the second-best average nationally. Mason played as hard as anyone in the conference, as evidenced by drawing more fouls (opponents fouled him an average of eight times per game) than any player nationally ... Other solid seasons were turned in by senior guard Marvin Jordan (9.7 ppg.), senior forward Marcus Ware (8.5, and a team-best 5.7 rebounds), freshmen forward Ramone Snowden (8.1, 5.5), guard Wesley Myers (6.7) and sophomore Ravon Harris (6.2, 4.2) ... And, there was certainly no quit on the part of the Purple Eagles. After just two victories in their final 18 regular-season games, Niagara rode a superlative 38-point, 6-rebound, 4-assist performance by Mason to upset Marist, 78-76, in the play-in round of the MAAC's post-season tournament before losing a well-played 89-80 contest in the quarterfinal round to Quinnipiac.
WHAT WENT WRONG: First-year coach Chris Casey drew a difficult assignment at the school, not only trying to replace the "legend," (Mihalich), but trying to do so with four of the team's best players opting to transfer elsewhere (two joining Mihalich at Hofstra). It left Niagara with one legitimate scoring threat in Mason, and almost no inside game outside of Ware, whose 5.7 rebounds per contest was the lowest average to lead any conference team. Overall Niagara was outrebounded by 3.5 per contest ... More telling, though, was the team's deficiency on the defensive end. With no true inside defensive presence, opponents pounded the ball inside. Niagara's per-game average of 82.1 points allowed was 342nd of 345 Division I teams nationally ... Despite all of that, Niagara remained competitively close all season, a credit to Casey and the mental toughness of his players. But, even that wasn't enough to stem the rising tide of losses, a 2-16 finish to the regular season and the program's worst record since a 2-12/5-25 finish to the 1994-95 season ... And, shortly after the season ended, once-promising sophomore point guard Tahjere McCall (7.5 ppg.) opted to transfer, apparently after seeing his role diminish in the latter half of the season.
WHAT'S AHEAD: Probably more of the same unless Casey can either find, or develop some post play. Mid-major level teams always struggle to find good post play, but that search seems to be more difficult, right now, for Niagara. There is some hope for the future with the additions of 6-8 Dominique Reid, who redshirted last season, but he's still a slender 200 pounds. Also joining the program is 6-7 freshman-to-be DayJar Dickson. And, there's also rising senior Joe Thomas, a 6-7, 220-pounder (3.4, 2.6), but he only averaged 13.7 minutes per game last season and has rarely been a factor yet ... The rebounding chores will probably fall heavily on 6-5 wing players rising junior Rayvon Harris (4.2 rebounds per game last season) and rising soph Ramone Snowden (5.5) ... Some other intriguing players are also coming aboard to help out on the perimeter. They include 6-2 frosh Karon Davis, who redshirted last season, LIU-Post Division II transfer Emile Blackmon, who averaged 12.7 ppg. there playing for Casey in the 2012-13 season, and 6-4 Matt Scott, who averaged 28.4 ppg. at small-school Brooklyn High School for Law & Technology last season. And, there's the return of Mason, who appears set to stay at Niagara despite rumors that he would consider transferring. His presence will help ensure the team remains respectable in the coming season and he'll surely contend for the national scoring lead once again.
REASONABLE EXPECTATION: Until proven otherwise, Niagara is the classic hole-in-the-middle "donut" team, and that could mean another season of weak interior defense and overall rebounding. If either Dominique or Dickerson are ready to contribute in a big way, and that's a lot to ask of freshmen, then Niagara could exceed expectations. For sure the program will have some of the best perimeter play in the conference. But, like this past season, that's not likely to move it up too far in the standings. We foresee Niagara being competitive once again, but not enough so to get higher than the eighth-to-tenth range in the final MAAC standings.