Niagara men's basketball preview: Veteran-laden roster brings signs of optimism - The Buffalo News

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Niagara men's basketball preview: Veteran-laden roster brings signs of optimism

Team: Niagara Purple Eagles

Affiliation: Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

Coach: Chris Casey, fifth year (32-96)

Last year: 10-23, 6-14 (9th)

Niagara has gone four seasons without a winning record. The Purple Eagles made the NIT in 2013, but haven't won more than 10 games in the subsequent four years.

On paper, this is the year that changes.

The Purple Eagles boast a veteran-heavy lineup, returning 88 percent of their scoring from last season. It's a breath of fresh air for a program that's been a revolving door since Casey's arrival, with 23 players leaving in the previous 3 1/2 years.

With that experience comes expectations, as Niagara was picked to finish fifth in the MAAC in the preseason coaches' poll. It's a big step from last season, when the Purple Eagles were picked to finish last in the 11-team conference.

Casey said he feels confident the group will slide up the standings.

"I fully expect us to make the next step," Casey said. "This is the first year for us to have some carryover from one year to the next and have some experience."

Casey isn't settling for just a middle-of-the-pack finish, though.

"I expect us to be in contention for a MAAC championship," Casey said. "Our goal is to win a MAAC championship."

Strengths

Seniors Matt Scott and Kahlil Dukes are the focal points of the roster, accounting for a combined 32 points per game last season.

Scott has been a steady presence for Casey, scoring in the mid-to-high teens and snagging around seven rebounds a game in each of the last two seasons. The Brooklyn native scored a career-high 17 points per game in 2016-'17.

Dukes lived up to the billing in his first year after transferring from the University of Southern California. He averaged 15.5 points, 4.1 assists, 2.9 rebounds and a steal per game.

He's traditionally an off-ball guard, but Dukes performed well in his time at point last season. Casey said it's his position again this year, with sophomore James Towns coming off the bench to replace him. Sometimes the pair will play together to give Dukes time at shooting guard.

Two new faces join the group in shooting guards Dominik Fragala and Keleaf Tate.

Fragala joins the team after an outstanding high school career. He finished third in all-time Virginia high school league single-season scoring with 922 points, more than Moses Malone and 27 points shy of Allen Iverson. He's a quick transition scorer, something the roster needed.

"He shoots the ball very well," Casey said. "It's a big jump from the level he played at high school to the level he's at now, a significant jump. He's adjusted to it well. He sees the ball well for us."

Tate preformed remarkably against top competition as a senior in high school, averaging 30 points against four nationally ranked teams.

Defensively, the Purple Eagles were solid last season, finishing fifth in the MAAC in points allowed and sixth in shooting percentage allowed.

Issues

The Purple Eagles struggled mightily with their shot efficiency last season, finishing last in the MAAC with a 44.5 percent field goal percentage from two-point range and 10th in the conference in overall shooting percentage.

"It's not something you address specifically," Casey said. "Your guys have got to get better, and with experience I think we did that."

Niagara's front court isn't particularly deep and the team lacks a true center. Dominic Robb, who averaged 25 minutes last season, is the tallest player on the team at 6-foot-8. Every other team in the MAAC has at least one player 6-foot-9 or taller.

Inside the numbers

Niagara was in the bottom half of the MAAC in scoring per game, assists, field goals and steals last season. The Purple Eagles did lead the league in one category, blocks per game (4.61).

Inside the schedule

Niagara starts the season against two teams with high NCAA Tournament hopes, St. Bonaventure and Minnesota. The first four games of the season are on the road, including Barclays Center Classic games at UMass and BYU. The Purple Eagles face UB Nov. 29 and kick off the conference slate with Iona, picked atop the MAAC preseason poll, on Dec. 29.

Outlook

Niagara is due for a season where it's at least around .500. If the Purple Eagles can't progress, Casey's job security could be up in the air.

The Schedule

Nov. 10 at St. Bonaventure 8 p.m.
Nov. 15 at Minnesota 8 p.m.
Nov. 19 at UMass ^ 12 p.m.
Nov. 21 at BYU ^ 9 p.m.
Nov. 24 Alabama A&M ^ 4 p.m.
Nov. 25 Western Carolina/Texas Arlington ^ 7 p.m.
Nov. 27 Army 7 p.m.
Nov. 29 Buffalo 7 p.m.
Dec. 5 at New Hampshire 7 p.m.
Dec. 10 St. Francis (Pa.) 2 p.m.
Dec. 16 at Norfolk State 4 p.m.
Dec. 19 Cleveland State 7 p.m.
Dec. 23 at Cornell 1 p.m.
Dec. 29 Iona * 7 p.m.
Dec. 31 Rider * 1 p.m.
Jan. 1 at Siena * 7 p.m.
Jan. 7 at Marist 2 p.m.
Jan. 12 Monmouth 7 p.m.
Jan. 14 St. Peter's * 2 p.m.
Jan. 18 at Quinnipiac * 7 p.m.
Jan. 20 at Fairfield * 1 p.m.
Jan. 24 Manhattan 7 p.m.
Jan. 27 at Canisius * 7 p.m.
Feb. 2 at St. Peter's * 7 p.m.
Feb. 4 at Monmouth * 2 p.m.
Feb. 8 Quinnipiac * 7 p.m.
Feb. 10 Fairfield * 3 p.m.
Feb. 16 at Iona * 7 p.m.
Feb. 18 at Manhattan 2 p.m.
Feb. 21 Canisius 7 p.m.
Feb. 23 Marist 7 p.m.
Mar. 1-5 MAAC Tournament
* MAAC games
^ Barclays Center Classic

The Roster

No. Name Pos. Cl. Ht. Wt. Hometown High School
0 Chris Barton G Jr. 6-3 199 Pontiac, Mich. Avondale
1 Dominik Fragala G Fr. Aldia, Va. 6-0 145 John Champe
2 Kevin Larkin G R-Jr. 6-5 172 Georgetown, Del. Cheyney University
4 Keleaf Tate G Fr. 6-2 170 Washington, D.C. Cesar Chavez
5 James Towns G So. 5-10 171 Detroit Henry Ford
10 Kahlil Dukes G R-Sr. 6-0 176 Hartford, Conn. USC
11 Marvin Prochet F Jr. 6-7 207 Brooklyn Long Island Lutheran
12 Dwayne Pow G R-Jr. 5-10 164 Bronx Mineral Area College
13 Matt Scott G Sr. 6-4 191 Brooklyn Brooklyn Law and Tech
21 Kierell Green F R-Fr. 6-7 177 Washington, D.C. Integrated Design & Economics Academy
24 Greg King F R-Jr. 6-7 238 Atlanta Eastern Kentucky
30 Greg Kuakumensah F Fr. 6-6 200 Worcester, Mass. Cushing Academy
32 Dominic Robb F Jr. 6-8 226 Pittsburgh Hun School

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