If asked to write a report on how one's summer vacation was spent, it would be tough to top the experience of Niagara University forward Juan Mendez.
Playing for the Canadian National team, Mendez got to play against 7-foot-6 Chinese sensation and NBA star Yao Ming during the Four Nations tournament in Beijing, China.
"He's huge," said the 6-7, 235-pound Mendez. "He's very talented and skilled and he uses his ability wisely. He's not the fastest guy, but he knows how to use his strengths. That's what I'm going to try to add to my game."
Mendez will need to put what he learned against Ming to use when Niagara opens its season tonight against Providence College and national player of the year candidate Ryan Gomes in the first round of the Preseason NIT in the Dunkin' Donuts Center.
The game (7 p.m., ESPN2) will be Niagara's first nationally televised regular-season appearance since its midnight game against Iona at the Gallagher Center was shown on ESPN2 in 2001.
"We're honored to be in the Preseason NIT, and to get the game that's going to be on national TV is great," said Niagara coach Joe Mihalich. "The bad news is we're going to be playing a very good team with a lottery pick player and on their floor. But this is a great, great opportunity and something we're real excited about."
Niagara will have to figure out how to deal with Gomes. The 6-7, 240-pound senior power forward was an Associated Press first-team All-American and consensus All-Big East selection last season after averaging 18.9 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. He decided against jumping to the NBA in hopes of raising his draft stock and leading the Friars to their second straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
Mendez is not as nationally known as Gomes, but he could collect some publicity tonight by playing against arguably the best power forward in the nation.
"I respect him. He's a terrific player," Mendez said of Gomes. "Every time you go out there you find someone who people are trying to compare you to. You just try to go out and prove that you belong at the same level."
Coaches always preach that basketball is a team game. Mihalich and Providence's Tim Welsh certainly don't want to see tonight's contest become a personal one-on-one contest between their top players.
However, the coaches can't deny that the Mendez-Gomes matchup adds luster to the game.
"I'm sure Tim Welsh would say this isn't about Gomes, just like I would say this isn't about Juan," Mihalich said. "But it's hard to ignore them. It is an attractive sidebar to know that you've got Mendez in one color uniform and Gomes in the other color uniform. There will be a lot of other good players on the floor, but those two guys will certainly be spotlighted.
"Anytime you get great players going against each other, it always adds to the intrigue of the game," Welsh said. "It's going to be fun watching them play."
Mendez and Gomes took similar paths to college stardom. Both were under-recruited high school prospects that turned out to be recruiting coups for their respective schools.
Mendez has been the best big man in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference the last two seasons. He ranked third in the league in scoring (20.5 points per game), rebounding (8.8) and field goal percentage (.521) and second in blocked shots (1.75) last season.
Mendez is hard to defend around the basket, but he has extended his shooting range and improved his passing, ball-handling and defensive skills.
"He can play anywhere in the country," Welsh said. "He can play in our league certainly. He's the kind of power forward I like because he can not only be a box player, he can also step out and do things on the floor. He's really skilled and a complete player. As far as guys I've seen over the last few years, he's one of the best players in the country."
Mihalich said the same thing about Gomes, who like Mendez entered college as strictly a post player but has become a more complete talent.
Gomes had 13 double-doubles last season, including a 26-point, 12-rebound performance in a 66-56 win over eventual national champion Connecticut. Former UConn center Emeka Okafor called Gomes his toughest opponent.
Gomes has made strides as an outside shooter, an area NBA scouts said he needed work on. He didn't make a three-pointer in six attempts as a freshman and sophomore, but was 29 of 87 beyond the arc during his junior campaign.
"I don't know if he has a weakness," Mihalich said. "He shoots threes, he can beat you off the dribble now and he's still a force inside. He looks like a (NBA) lottery pick to me."
Mendez and Gomes are the stars, but their supporting casts could determine the outcome tonight.
Niagara has a solid backcourt with seniors Alvin Cruz and David Brooks backed up by sophomore Lorenzo Miles and freshman Charron Fisher. But the frontcourt is a question mark with the graduation of forward Tremmell Darden and center James Reaves.
Providence also suffered a key frontcourt loss in 6-10 center Marcus Douthit, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers. Gomes and 6-4 junior guard Donnie McGrath are the only returning starters on a team that went 20-9 and posted a school record-tying 11 Big East wins. But a lot is expected out of 6-5 sophomore guard Dwight Brewington and 6-9 senior forward Tuukka Kotti, who got key minutes as reserves last season.
"We've been looking forward to this game since the schedule came out," Brooks said. "A lot of people probably don't think we have a chance playing against a Big East team. But we're confident that we can go there and get a win."
One Providence player to watch is Niagara Falls graduate Jeff Parmer. The 6-7 forward is a redshirt freshman after not playing last season. . . . The Preseason NIT is one of the exempted tournaments using experimental rules. The three-point line will be extended nine inches to 20-6 and the foul lane is widened 1 1/2 feet on each side.