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'D' is key to Niagara's tourney hopes

There's not a whole lot to latch onto in Big 4 basketball this season. St. Bonaventure remains out of its league against the upper echelon of the Atlantic 10. The University at Buffalo lacks the seasoning to match up with the Mid-American Conference's elite on the road. It's hard to see the Bulls getting by either Akron, Ohio U. or Kent State in the conference tourney in Cleveland.

Canisius is coming off a noteworthy win over former co-leader Marist, but what kind of damage can it do in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference postseason with one true scorer and a freshman at the point? Which brings us to Niagara, a team that exudes mediocrity at first glance but oozes potential beneath the surface of its 10-10 record.

Joe Mihalich operates the kind of program many a basketball purist would abhor. Defense at Niagara, it would seem, amounts to whittling 10 seconds off the shot clock -- when it has possession. The Purple Eagles' scattershot offense often lacks any semblance of structure and purpose. But most every year under Mihalich, who's in his ninth season, the Purple Eagles have been entertaining and dangerous, their up-tempo style a ticklish challenge for their more deliberate MAAC brethren.

Mihalich deserves credit for his unwavering approach. He gets the same type of players every year, in no small part because he's true to a strategy that lets freedom ring. There's a place at Niagara for anyone who can run the floor. There are minutes to be had for those with a knack for finishing at the offensive end. Mihalich's club always has a go-to player, and sometimes two or more. And if it all makes the purists recoil, so be it. Mihalich has taken Niagara to the NCAAs and the NIT, putting him in a group of one among Big 4 coaches.

An ability to pile up the points will make Niagara a threat when the MAAC Tournament arrives, particularly since the conference lacks an outstanding team. Junior Charron Fisher, a 6-foot-3 battering ram, is averaging 22.7 points. Four others are in double figures. Marist coach Matt Brady alluded to the difficulty in dealing with Niagara's style and personnel after a 91-86 overtime victory in the Gallagher Center on Thursday, noting the tests presented by the Purple Eagles are unique in the MAAC.

But how dangerous Niagara is when there's an NCAA berth on the line will depend on its defensive improvement over the remainder of the season. Just because the emphasis is on offense doesn't excuse Mihalich's troops from putting forth the effort on the other end of the floor. Winless Iona shot 52.5 percent against them Saturday, and afterward coach Jeff Ruland made note of Niagara's slovenly "D." Five straight opponents have shot better than 47 percent. It's a tough way to make a living or, come the postseason, remain alive.

"Absolutely," Mihalich said Saturday. "Boy, that's what it's going to come down to. I guess it's a self-indictment that we're not a better defensive team, but if you came to practice and saw how much we work on defense you'd wonder the same thing I'm wondering. Why aren't we playing better defensively? But I think we can and believe me, it starts with me. I've got to do something different or better or whatever. I think that's clear to everybody."

In defense of Niagara's lack of defense, continuity has been fleeting this season. Suspensions resulting from an offseason altercation had players in and out of the lineup early on, which might help explain the lack of cohesiveness.

"We kill each other in practice," Mihalich said. "We don't keep the first team against the second team. We split them up and they kill each other. Maybe that's why. Maybe we have to stop doing that."

Forget that. Just bring it along to the game.


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