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What's up: Joe Mihalich has won 106 games in his six years as Niagara coach. Several national magazines pick the Purple Eagles to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in spite of the graduation losses of stars Tremmell Darden and James Reaves, who combined for more than 3,000 points and 1,500 rebounds in their careers.

No matter which players come and go, winning has become part of the tradition on Monteagle Ridge.

"You want to have a program, not just a good year or two," Mihalich said. "After we lost Alvin Young and Jeremiah Johnson, people said we'd be lousy. Then we had Daryl Greene and Demond Stewart. Then we lose them and here comes Darden and Reaves and (current seniors) Alvin Cruz, Juan Mendez and David Brooks. We're just so proud of our program."

Niagara's hopes for snapping a 35-year NCAA Tournament drought start with Mendez, who enters the season with 1,505 career points and should join Calvin Murphy as NU's only 2,000-point scorers. He also will pass former Canisius great Micheal Meeks as the all-time NCAA scoring leader among Canadian players.

"He's improved defensively and he can really shoot it," Mihalich said. "We expect great things."

With Reaves gone, the Purple Eagles will give a different look with Mendez as the only true post player. They'll get plenty of outside scoring from Brooks, and the speedy Cruz will put the ball in the right hands.

Cruz has 439 career assists, just 60 shy of breaking Gary Bossert's school career record of 498 set in 1987.

"He has a new air of confidence about him," Mihalich said. "When the all-conference picks came out last year and Alvin wasn't on them, Juan Mendez said to me, 'Coach, Alvin is the MVP of our team.' When your teammates feel that way about you, it says something."

What's down: The seniors are the only sure things NU has, and even Cruz struggled from the field last season. Sophomore Lorenzo Miles will start at off guard. Sophomore J.R. Duffey will get big minutes at forward.

Junior James Mathis and freshman Charron Fisher will chip in there, too. Fisher is expected to become a key player. Duffey and Mathis showed flashes of production last year.

Outlook: Niagara has lost by a single point in the MAAC Tournament the last two years to eventual champion Manhattan. Last year's 62-61 defeat in the final was a gut-wrencher that was soothed somewhat by an NIT win over Troy State and a close loss at Nebraska.

"We did have some success in the postseason to remember and build from," Mihalich said. "Until that happens, your guys don't know what it's all about and how exciting it is."

Every year, Mihalich gathers his team and points to the corner of the Gallagher Center where the 1970 NCAA banner hangs -- and to where a new one would go. This year, the NIT and NCAA banners have been rearranged chronologically so the 1970 one is in the middle of the line, rather than alone on an end as it's been all these years.

"Now our goal is to get one back on the end (for 2005)," Mihalich said. "It's an accomplishment to be in the mix every year. All you ever want is a chance, and it seems we always have one."

Figure on 18 wins in the regular season and two more in the MAAC Tournament in HSBC Arena. That gets Niagara to 20 -- and back to the final, this time in front of a home crowd. Then the Purple Eagles get to go for that banner.