To hear Niagara coach Joe Mihalich tell it you'd have thought the Purple Eagles were in for a long, uninspiring season. Three mainstays had graduated from last year's NCAA Tournament team. More than 2,400 points up and walked out the door. Mihalich wondered aloud about the challenges that lay in wait, lamented the difficulty of reloading yet again.
Nice try. Coaches in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference are on to Mihalich's self-deprecating gamesmanship. They know the 10th-year coach has a knack for restocking his shelves, that he'll never go hungry. That's why they sized up Niagara's hefty graduation losses and still projected the Purple Eagles would finish no worse than third in the MAAC. Everyone should have such a down year.
Once again, the Purple Eagles are the Big 4 team that warrants the closest attention. They're loaded in the backcourt. They still have Barkley-esque forward Charron Fisher, last year's leading scorer, terrorizing opposing defenses from all points in the frontcourt. The news flash is that right from the get-go this Niagara team has shown an affinity for defense, a trait Mihalich rarely coaxes out of his players until conference tournament time draws near. Their quickness is frightening.
Yes, Niagara is that good, or at least looked that good in dismantling the University at Buffalo, 80-63, on Tuesday night at the Gallagher Center. The torment of five straight losses to the Bulls has been vaporized despite the departure of Clif Brown, J.R. Duffey and Lorenzo Miles off last year's 23-win squad.
It's more of the same up on Monteagle Ridge, which has experienced 20-plus win seasons three of the last four years. Mihalich just might have the goods to make a run at Siena, which affirmed its status as the emphatic conference favorite with last week's victory over Stanford. They meet for the first time in mid-January, giving Niagara ample time to solidify its new identity.
"This year we're trying to find our niche," Mihalich said. "Maybe it's our team speed. Maybe it's the fact that these three guards can really guard and Charron can guard when he wants to. One more piece of the puzzle and we could be a good defensive team. Maybe that'll be one of our niches this year."
Anthony Nelson, the freshman in the Purple Eagles' three-guard offense, is typical Niagara tough, sees the game well and has range on his jumper. Tyrone Lewis, the MVP of last year's MAAC Tournament, sometimes commands the floor with such authority it's hard to reconcile he's only a sophomore. Meanwhile, senior Stanley Hodge just quietly goes about his business, attracting little notice until the final stat sheet arrives showing 20 points, nine rebounds and five assists. And these are hard times?
Niagara's defensive anticipation and offensive explosiveness will make it a tough matchup. The poise and tempo management UB's young point guards showed in last week's victory over Big East foe South Florida vanished in the boisterous atmosphere of the Gallagher Center. The Purple Eagles wanted to run and UB, to its regret, obliged in the early going. Eight players figured in the turnover column as the Bulls were harried into 14 first-half giveaways and fell victim to nine Niagara steals.
No one was falling for Mihalich's tale of woe this time around. His program has epitomized mid-major consistency for a decade. He continues to find talented, underappreciated players who fit into the up-tempo style he favors.
Niagara just keeps coming. And here it comes again.