Antoine Mason’s considerable scowl and recurrent eye rolls, natural reactions to frustration, are becoming infrequent as Niagara University’s chemistry continues to develop.
The origin of Mason’s vicious glare was a 1-8 start to the season but back-to-back victories over Saint Peter’s and Davidson have Mason and the Purple Eagles smiling again coming into this evening’s game against longtime rival St. Bonaventure.
St. Bonaventure-Niagara, meeting for the 153rd time, highlights a busy day in Big 4 hoops.
The University at Buffalo (4-3), coming off a 10-day layoff after losing to Canisius on Dec. 11, plays Manhattan (8-2) as part of the Brooklyn Hoops Holiday Invitational. They tip off at 3 p.m. at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Canisius (7-4), winner of four of its last five, plays host to Lamar (1-9) at 4:15 p.m. at the Koessler Center.
In Big 4 women’s action, UB (5-4), which has dropped back-to-back games to Siena and St. Bonaventure by a combined nine points, will try to rebound against Niagara (2-6) at 1 p.m. at the Gallagher Center. Canisius (4-5) opens Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play against league newcomer Quinnipiac (5-6, 0-1) at 1:45 p.m.
Tipoff for St. Bonaventure-Niagara begins at 5 p.m. at the Gallagher Center. Niagara (3-8), at least for the last two games, appears to be a completely different team than it was a month ago under first-year coach Chris Casey.
“I think they’re understanding their roles better,” St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt said. “With a new coach it takes a little bit of time but those guys are playing hard. They’re scoring the basketball and are a difficult team to guard because they have a lot of weapons and really push the ball.”
The primary armament is Mason, the nation’s leading scorer at 28.6 points a game. A considerable bundle of his points comes from the charity stripe, where he’s made 105 of 137 attempts.
“He’s strong, knows how to get to the lane, he knows how to get fouled,” Schmidt said. “He knows how to play in their system and he’s given the green light.”
While Mason’s scoring average is up more than 10 points from a year ago, Schmidt notes the junior from Queens is not a gunner. He’s shooting 45.8 percent from the floor, which is five percentage points higher than his career average.
“He’s not a pig, he plays within the system,” he said. “It’s not like he’s scoring all these points by just throwing up garbage. He takes good shots. He lowers that shoulder and takes it hard to the paint. He’s hard to guard.”
Mason suffered through back spasms in the Davidson win and still managed to score 20 points in 33 minutes. Casey said on Friday that there are no recurring issues with Mason’s back.
Schmidt said the Bonnies will rotate defenders at Mason to give him different looks. A likely candidate to start on Mason is 6-foot-4 Andell Cumberbatch.
While the Bonnies (7-4) have to figure out ways to gag Mason, the Purple Eagles have to do the same with senior guard Matthew Wright, who has been dealing with an ankle injury.
The Bonnies’ leading scorer at 16.5 points a game, Wright missed the win against Iona on Dec. 14 but played 27 minutes off the bench in the loss earlier this week at Wake Forest. He shot just 4 of 12 from the floor, 1 of 5 from long distance for nine points and Schmidt said the ankle was 80-85 percent. Regardless, he’s a concern for Niagara.
“He puts the ball on the floor very well and attacks the rim,” Casey said. “He’s good in transition – they’re good overall as a team in transition and usually when you’re good defensively you can get out and run – and he’s very good at it. He can get the ball in the open floor and get to the rim.”
Another player to watch is Cumberbatch, who is averaging 18.2 points over the last five games. Recruited by Schmidt to score, the junior college transfer pumped in 25 against Iona and 19 against Wake while canning 5 of 11 from long range. He’s making 40 percent of his three-point attempts.
“Probably what happened with Wright out, he’s taken on a greater role, which he’s been good at,” Casey said. “He’s good at driving the ball to the basket, he’s got good size, and has filled in very well for them.”