Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Niagara Men's Report: Youthful Squad Will Grow Up

Here's another in the series looking back and ahead at conference programs.

Up now ...


2011-12 RECORD: 8-10 in MAAC play, 14-19 overall.

2011-12 RECAP: Just the third losing record in head coach Joe Mihalich's 14 seasons at Niagara, but the second in a row. Still, some improvement over a 9-23 finish the previous year. And, that's considerable progress considering the roster was the third-youngest of 345 Division I teams nationally. There certainly were some high points, including beating regional rival Canisius all three times the teams met (twice in the regular season, once in the conference tournament), and a pair of three-game winning streaks. The second of those included victories over Siena and Rider, teams that finished higher in the standing. And, the win over Rider saw the team overcome a 17-point second-half deficit. Individually, freshmen were three of the team's top four scorers. Guard Juan'ya Green had a fabulous first year at the college level, and his 17.7 points per game was the second-best average by a freshman nationally. He also led the conference in steals, was its Rookie of the Year (first ever from Niagara) and was the's mid-major level Freshman of the Year. Niagara went 4-2 in its last six games, its season ending with a loss to tournament winner Loyola in the quarterfinal round of the MAAC's post-season event.

WHAT WENT RIGHT: The youth delivered considerable optimism for the future. Green looked capable of emerging into one of the league's elite players oer his next three years, and makes for a formidable backcourt combination with red-shirt frosh Antoine Mason (15.1 ppg.). A third guard, 5-11 sophomore Marvin Jordan (10.4 ppg.) ensures the Purple Eagles' perimeter game is well-fortified for the next two seasons. Mason became one of the league's top snipers, and his average of 2.5 three pointers per game was 63rd best nationally. The team's trademark fast-tempo offense also showed signs of life, averaging 70.4 points per game, up nine points from the previous season's 61.4 ppg. average. A third member of the standout freshman class, 6-6 forward Ameen Tanksley, also had a nice first season (8.7 points and a team-high 5.9 rebounds). And, yet another freshman, 6-7 forward Joseph Thomas (3.5, 3.7) flashed signs that he can develop into a contributor. The team also used its youth and athleticism to its advantage. Green topped the conference in steals (1.9 per game), and Niagara's 8.3 thefts per game was 26th-best nationally. Niagara also forced opponents into an average of 3.3 more turnovers per game than it committed, the 18th-best average nationally.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Too much youth. There were too many inconsistent nights, the likes of which turns a veteran coach's already gray hair even grayer. The team started 5-11. After that, it put together two three-game winning streaks but, between those, lost five straight games. It had a chance to avoid the post-season tournament's play-in round, but lost that chance with a lopsided 89-77 loss to Marist in the final regular-season game. And, typical of a young team, the defense was too often lacking. Niagara allowed 74.2 points per game, ranking it 308 of 345 Division I teams. There was also considerable lack of inside play. Eric Williams, a 6-8 junior, (1.0, 1.0) didn't come close to his 4.1/3.2 averages the previous year. But, Williams truly didn't fit into the up-tempo style. Then, too, highly touted junior college recruit 6-6 Ali Langford, was a disappointment (1.8, 2.0), and was recently was granted his release to move elsewhere. Thomas truly didn't come around until late in the year, and the team's tallest player, 6-8 Scooter Gillette (4.5, 2.5), doesn't contribute much in the paint.

WHAT'S AHEAD: Considering that the youth will develop together and theoretically build team chemistry, Niagara could be very good again fairly quickly. The expectation is that it will most-definitely approach a .500 record, at the very least, in the coming season with the chance for even better. But, that will all depend on the development of the inside players. Thomas and Tanksley in particular. They probably also need to bring in at least one more post player, although they haven't found one yet via recruiting. Green, Mason and Jordon (along with 6-3 sophomore Malcolm Lemmons) deliver the potential to be one of the better perimeter groups in the conference. And there's one more so-called wild card in the form of 6-5 freshman Josh Turner, whose academic struggles early restricted him from even practicing with the team until he was declared eligible for the second semester. He still averaged 3.4 points and 1.8 rebounds, but much more is expected of him and he could come up big next season.

PREDICTION FOR 2012-13: Hard to envision Niagara competing with Loyola and Manhattan for the top spot in the conference. After that, though, there's not much distance between the next six or seven teams and Niagara certainly falls into that group. It might be a year too early for Niagara to finish as high as third in the coming season, but a top-five finish isn't out of the question.

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