The last time coach Joe Mihalich had to embark on a rebuilding program at Niagara University, the Purple Eagles finished under .500 for the first time in nine seasons.
Replacing the productive trio of Juan Mendez, David Brooks and Alvin Cruz from his 2004-05 team, Mihalich virtually started from scratch and won just 11 games. This time around, seven newcomers arrive at the Gallagher Center and he must replace Clif Brown, Lorenzo Miles and J.R. Duffey, who helped the Purple Eagles to a 23-12 record in 2006-07, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament championship and the school's second NCAA tournament berth in three seasons.
But Mihalich might avoid a repeat of 2005-06 because he returns his leading scorer of the last two seasons in MAAC Player of the Year candidate Charron Fisher. A daring disciple of basketball's Church of the Run and Gun, Mihalich gave the following assessment of his team this season: "We have good days and bad days, it's hit or miss. It is what we expected."
But weep not for Niagara. It was recently picked to finish third behind Siena and Loyola in the MAAC.
"The guys are working hard and we're having fun," he said. "Every day in practice, you get a different feeling about this team."
For a guy too young to remember Adrian Dantley, Fisher has a game quite similar to the former
Buffalo Brave. Generously listed at 6-foot-4, Fisher can overpower opponents on most nights inside, then take his baby-soft jumper from beyond the arc and swish three-pointers. While he's paced the team in scoring in each of the last two years, Fisher has never played a full season at Niagara. If he does this time around, the MAAC Player of the Year award awaits. And Fisher could be asked to carry more of the Purple Eagles' offensive load.
"A lot of teams have two or three go-to guys," Mihalich said. "Last year, we had five guys who could hurt you. This year, we could focus on the guys who can do what they do."
Sophomore Tyrone Lewis is capable of carrying the offense as well. Lewis took his game to another level during the postseason by averaging 19.7 points and 4.7 rebounds while shooting 53.7 percent from the field to earn MAAC Tournament MVP honors. It seems like senior Stanley Hodge has been around since the 1980s, but he's a calming influence in the backcourt. Hodge worked on his stroke during the offseason and is shooting well in practice.
Mihalich is surprised by the poise of freshman point guard Anthony Nelson and the improvement of junior center Benson Egemonye. He also expects contributions from freshman forward Kashief Edwards, junior college transfer Demetrius Williamson and sophomores Kamau Gordon and Andrew Patterson. Mihalich's bench normally runs seven deep but this year he hopes to play nine.
Glance at Mihalich's rosters from the past and you'll usually find scorers popping up like dandelions. Not just one or two, but four or five. Last season if Fisher was off, Brown could pick up the slack. Or Duffey. Or Miles. This year, pencil in Fisher for 20-25 points a night and Lewis for 12-15. Everyone else is unknown.
"With four of us sitting in the room," Mihalich said of his assistant coaches, "we'll get four different answers."
That's why Mihalich won't sugarcoat how much Niagara will miss Brown, Duffey and Miles. The Purple Eagles had a team where opponents had to play them honestly. Now, unless a third scorer emerges, Fisher and Lewis will face numerous double teams. Without the presence of Brown, who often inhaled boards, rebounding could be an issue.
Many are predicting the Purple Eagles will take a fall and get shoved closer to the cellar of the MAAC standings, yet nothing can be further from the truth. The backcourt looks to be an asset and depth will eventually become a strength, despite the inexperience. If Fisher has a big season and another scorer is developed, Niagara will contend in the MAAC once again.
This is the second of five days of college basketball preview stories.
Sunday: University at Buffalo.
Wednesday: St. Bonaventure, plus local non-Division I and junior colleges.
Thursday: Syracuse and Rodney McKissic's Top 25.