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The Buffalo trip.

There are three words that cause sleepless nights for basketball coaches throughout the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Most MAAC teams make a weekend out of their back-to-back games at Niagara and Canisius. Few enjoy it.

With the conference tourney here March 2-5, they want to get comfortable here, but only seventh-place Fairfield -- which played the games on separate trips and won both in overtime -- has gone 2-0 this season.

Over the last four years, only Iona has a .500 record on the trips (4-4). Manhattan and Loyola are the last two teams to come to town this year and they've both dropped seven straight games here.

Manhattan plays tonight at Niagara (8, Radio 1440) and Sunday against Canisius in the 1 p.m. opener of an HSBC Arena doubleheader. Loyola is at the Koessler Center to meet the Griffs tonight at 8 (Radio 1520) and plays Niagara in the arena Sunday at 3:30.

Loyola (5-18, 2-12) has lost 27 straight road games since beating St. Peter's on Feb. 14, 1999. Manhattan, meanwhile, has won eight of 11 overall to improve to 12-12, 9-5 and is considered a chic pick as the conference sleeper.

With the Jaspers tied with Niagara and Siena for second place, second-year coach Bobby Gonzalez is wary of collapsing to two losses like Rider and Siena have already done this year.

"It's been five years since we've even got a split on this trip," Gonzalez, a 1986 Buffalo State grad, said Thursday by phone from Riverdale. "If we win one game, it might be like winning the national championship. It's going to be a big step for our team. It's a tough trip because you do a lot of hanging around the hotel for two or three days."

Niagara enters the weekend 12-11, 9-5. Canisius is 14-9 overall but just 6-8 in the conference and is likely looking at a play-in game to start the tournament.

With much of the MAAC based in New York City, the Buffalo trip is generally the only time any of the teams take a plane during the conference season. Games between Manhattan, Iona, St. Peter's and Fairfield often involve simple bus trips the day of the game. There are no travel hassles like the ones Canisius and Niagara routinely deal with during their four or five league road jaunts each year.

Manhattan's season went down the drain last year in Buffalo. The Jaspers hit town 10-7 and left 10-9 after an 86-76 loss at Niagara and their epic 105-98, four-overtime defeat at Canisius. They were never the same as they lost eight of their last 10 games to finish 12-15.

Gonzalez is hoping this year's tighter schedule (the second game is in the afternoon rather than at night) and a plane ride rather than a long bus trip will improve his fortunes. So will the fact that he simply has a better team.

"We have more games under our belt this year than when we came last year," he said. "We're more tested. We've been resilient and have bounced back all year. We lost to Niagara at our place (81-78) when they shot the lights out from three (12 of 25) and we played really well against Canisius (an 89-65 win).

"But these are both going to be hard games. Iona has the most talent in the league and when they lose like they did at Canisius (93-69), that's scary."

In the Jaspers' favor is a strong frontcourt led by 6-foot-7 senior Durelle Brown (16.2 points), 6-7 freshman David Holmes and one of the league's best point guards in 5-10 Von Damien "Muggsy" Green (5.9 assists). Manhattan also is the MAAC's best defensive team, allowing 68.2 points in overall play.

"When I came in we were pressing and running and I don't think people gave us respect for what we were doing defensively," Gonzalez said. "We don't hold the ball on offense. We're not a halfcourt defensive team like Wisconsin."

Of late, the Jaspers have looked to get the ball to Holmes, the most highly touted freshman in the MAAC since Lionel Simmons starred for La Salle a decade ago. Holmes came from Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, a superpower on the high school/prep school scene but missed the first semester getting his academic affairs in order.

The 6-6 Holmes (9.8 points) has won three consecutive MAAC rookie of the week awards. He had 29 points and 16 rebounds last week in two games.

"We had to get him adjusted to the team and get the team adjusted to him," Gonzalez said. "He'll be an impact player, a special guy."

Gonzalez is justifiably proud of his team, which was once 4-9 but has won three in a row since the Niagara loss.

"It's so critical to stay positive and we've never gotten down," he said. "That's why our kids have been constantly bouncing back.

"Niagara could have crushed us but it will take more than a three-pointer at the buzzer for us to fold. Now we've got it to the point where when you play Manhattan, we'll at least be a tough out."

Records of MAAC teams during their regular-season road games at Canisius and Niagara:
2000-01Last 4 seasons
St. Peter's0-21-7

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