It’s been a long time since February rolled around and the Big 4 spotlight zeroed in on Canisius. But that’s where it shines this week as the first-place Griffs, winners of four straight, play a couple of home games that could heavily impact the seedings for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament about four weeks down the road.
On Friday night Manhattan, the MAAC’s preseason favorite, visits the Koessler Athletic Center smarting after losing three of its last four. It’ll be the first of the two season meetings between the schools. That’s followed up on Sunday afternoon by what could be a first-place showdown between Canisius (16-7, 10-2) and Iona (12-8, 9-2). Canisius won the first meeting, 85-83, in New Rochelle on Jan. 17. The Gaels haven’t lost since and carry a four-game winning streak into tonight’s game at Monmouth postponed from Monday by weather issues. (Manhattan’s home game against Saint Peter’s also was postponed until tonight).
The Griffs and Gaels have a two-game lead in the loss column over Quinnipiac (8-4), Manhattan (7-4) and Rider (7-4) but the advantage could be leaner than it might appear. Quinnipiac has just one game remaining against the top five teams (at Canisius on Feb. 20). The Griffs have five and Iona four.
Manhattan (14-6, 7-4) returned the nucleus of a team that came on strong last season under Steve Masiello, winning eight of 10 before a 60-57 loss to Iona in the MAAC title game. What’s more, leading scorer George Beamon is back in the mix after suffering a season-ending injury early last season. But team chemistry has been slow to jell.
Niagara (6-17, 3-9) has the flip side of the schedule: Iona at 7 p.m. Friday and Manhattan at 2 p.m. Sunday. The Gaels shot 64.5 percent from the field in a 118-92 victory over the Purple Eagles on Jan. 4.
UB (11-7, 5-3) returns to its comfort zone Wednesday night for a 7 p.m. tipoff against Ball State (4-15, 1-7). The Bulls are unbeaten at Alumni Arena and will be out to reverse the result of a 71-68 loss to the Cardinals on Jan. 23. Then they’re off to Central Michigan on Saturday night to face the only MAC team without a conference win.
After these two crossovers UB faces East Division competition the rest of the way.
It’s Richmond that’ll be after redemption when the Spiders (14-8, 4-3) entertain St. Bonaventure (13-8, 3-4) Wednesday night. The Bonnies scored an 84-70 victory when the teams met in their A-10 opener on Jan. 8, but Richmond’s been a different team on its home floor (3-0 in conference with wins over UMass and Saint Joseph’s).
Bona’s been off since taking down No. 21 UMass, 78-65, at the Reilly Center on Wednesday. The Bonnies finish out the week when Dayton (14-8, 2-5) visits the Reilly Center at 4 p.m. Saturday.
In a bind
Siena ranks among the more foul-plagued teams in the country and its travails were manifest in Saturday’s 103-95 overtime loss to visiting Quinnipiac, the top rebounding team in the land. Six Saints fouled out, including four starters, and Quinnipiac went 47 of 65 from the foul line.
Coach Jimmy Patsos, in his first year at Siena after leaving Loyola (Md.), chalked it up to a talent issue.
“It means we’re not one of the Big Four,” Patsos said. “I tell the truth. No, I’ll spin it like everyone else in America: ‘You know, we really tried hard.’
“No, we’re not as good as those four teams. … They’re a better team than us. They have three seniors starting. We don’t. They were picked ahead of us. I thought we tried hard, but we’re not as good as those four teams.”
Patsos is referring to Quinnipiac, Canisius, Iona and Manhattan.
UB’s desire to build a big-time athletic program sounds good in theory but consider: Ohio drew 9,173 against Toledo Saturday. Kent’s matchup with rival Akron attracted 6,181. UB’s biggest crowd this year was 4,703, and that was for the Bona game. The Bulls drew 4,703 for a First Niagara Center doubleheader in which it played Canisius in what’s categorized as a home game. The biggest home crowd for a non-Big 4 game was 3,568 for Division II West Virginia Wesleyan in coach Bobby Hurley’s home debut.
Overall home attendance is down from last year – when the Bulls played Bona and Canisius on the road. The decline intrigues since it comes after a coaching change made in no small part to position the program as more marketable.
UB’s average crowd last year for non-Big 4 games was 3,025. This year it’s 2,858. Meanwhile, the budget was increased by adding a director of basketball operations, replacing bus trips to Ohio and Miami (Ohio) with charter flights and bringing in a new coach while the former coach remains under contract.
Mid-American Conference home teams won five of six games played over the weekend, bucking the early trend. Before Saturday MAC teams were 20-22 in home conference games and, even after the weekend, just five have winning conference records at home. Take UB and Toledo (both 4-0) out of the equation and before Saturday the remaining MAC teams were barely winning more than a third of the time at home.
Antoine Mason’s lead in the national scoring race slimmed over the last week after he was held under 20 points in Niagara’s road losses at Siena and Marist. Mason’s averaging 26.6 and saw his advantage shrink after Creighton’s Doug McDermott went for 39 against St. John’s last Tuesday. McDermott is averaging 25.0. Canisius’s Billy Baron (23.7) fell from third to fifth behind BYU’s Tyler Haws (24.6) and Texas Southern’s Aaric Murray (23.8).
Bona 79, Canisius 83, UB 149, Niagara 295. How tough is the Atlantic 10? The Bonnies are 79th in the country but ninth in the conference.