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DESPITE FALL, NIAGARA'S ON THE RISE

The excitement's percolating on Monteagle Ridge. Niagara is one game into its men's basketball season and already there's rampant talk of another trip to the postseason -- maybe this time, finally, the NCAAs.

There's no telling what the Purple Eagles might accomplish based on their season-opener at Providence, a top-30 Big East team that barely escaped Niagara's clutches in Tuesday's opening round of the Preseason NIT.

It was a game that underscored Niagara's vast potential and immense capabilities, while identifying its need to mature and free its mind of the confines of the mid-major label.

Is there any doubt the 13-point lead Niagara squandered down the stretch was a case of the underdog wondering if it's worthy of beating a top-flight major on its own floor? That's exactly what it was, the nerves kicking in. It's not the kind of thing that happens against Loyola of Maryland.

The digression was unfortunate for the team and more unfortunate for the program, which has repeatedly courted national recognition during the Joe Mihalich era.

A win would have put Niagara up against Penn in the NIT quarterfinals. A victory there -- more likely than not -- would have advanced the Purple Eagles to the semifinals in Madison Square Garden and a date with Wake Forest. At worst, they would have met either Michigan or Arizona in the consolation game.

Niagara would have been the runt of the litter and the talk of the tournament. It would have earned two more appearances on national television, been celebrated in the New York papers and cultivated a name recognition that's always an asset when it comes to recruiting. It would have meant the kind of extensive publicity unattainable within a modest budget.

"I think that's true," Director of Athletics Mike Hermann said Thursday. "We were all out there at the end with butterflies in our stomachs because as a mid-major we know what it means to have that chance and what it could do for our program. We could have beaten a Big East opponent on their floor, and then reaped all the benefits that would go with it."

It would have been a fitting tribute to Mihalich, who has overseen the most consistent of the Big 4 basketball programs. Canisius and St. Bonaventure have produced memorable seasons here and there, and the University at Buffalo is on the rapid rise. Mihalich has twice been left at the altar of the NCAAs, so it's easy to forget he's finished in the top four of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference each of his seven seasons. He's recruited way beyond reasonable expectation, built a perennial contender, won with guards at the forefront and with post players leading the way. No wonder they let out a sigh of relief along the escarpment when he declared no interest in a job at La Salle, his alma mater, and remained with NU.

"Every year we've gone into the (MAAC) tournament with the feeling we could be the team that comes out of it," Hermann said. "That has been great. The consistency has been tremendous."

Niagara plays its home opener Saturday night against American, a team that, like itself, is more dangerous than people tend to realize, a first-round overtime loser to Virginia Commonwealth in the Preseason NIT. Mihalich's challenge is to get his team over the heartbreak of Providence and have his players embrace the 32 minutes of top-flight ball they played and take it from there.

"Joe and I were just talking a few minutes ago," Hermann said. "Who could have imagined seven years ago that we would go on the road, almost beat a Big East team on its home floor and be bitterly disappointed?"

No one. It's been a resurgence to behold.
e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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