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Statistics sure do lie when it comes to the Niagara basketball team.

Though markedly improved in many areas, the Purple Eagles are staring squarely at a 2-7 start unless they can spring an upset in this weekend's Holiday Festival in Madison Square Garden.

Niagara (2-5) meets St. John's (7-3) in Friday night's first round (9, MSG). No. 18 Princeton (8-1) and perennial America East power Drexel (4-1) play the first game. The championship and consolation are Saturday.

"It's a 'pick-your-poison' kind of tournament," Niagara coach Jack Armstrong said after Wednesday's practice in the Gallagher Center. "We're using this to get better for later in the season, but we're going to be challenged to play 80 terrific minutes if we want to have a chance to get something on the bottom line."

Niagara's current bottom line doesn't reflect some of the other numbers that show the improvement Armstrong needed in what appears to be a make-or-break year for NU's ninth-year coach. Consider these figures:

Niagara is shooting 50 percent from the field, a figure it has not hit for a whole season since 1986-87 and nearly 7 percent higher than last year. The Purple Eagles are 14th in the country in the latest NCAA statistics -- but were the only team in the top 25 with a losing record.

Niagara is hitting 39 percent from three-point range, up 9 percent from last year.

The Purple Eagles have grabbed nearly three more rebounds per game than their foes and outrebounded six of seven opponents.

They have had more assists than turnovers in five games and have a positive assist-to-turnover margin for the season. They averaged 4.25 more turnovers than assists last year.

NU opponents are shooting 39.8 percent from the field (down 5 percent from last year) and scoring 6.3 fewer points per game.

"It's baffling," Armstrong said. "We have not found a way to win yet. It's very frustrating and yet I feel like the things you work on as a staff we've improved upon.

"Did I expect to be at this point? No way. I was hoping to be at least 4-3. We've had chances and haven't capitalized."

It should be noted the stats are somewhat skewed by Niagara's dominance in its victories over Bucknell (78-56) and La Salle (84-60). NU shot 57.9 percent from the field in those two games and hit 34 of 48 free throws.

Despite a rugged schedule (the five teams that have beaten Niagara are a combined 26-15) NU's biggest problem is obvious. The Purple Eagles have been killed by bad free-throw shooting: 60.5 percent for the season and a woeful 17 of 47 in losses to the University at Buffalo, Siena and Youngstown State.

"We really don't know what's going on," said senior forward Jermaine Young, who has averaged 16 1/2 points and six rebounds since moving into the starting lineup four games ago. "We expect to be winning and 2-5 doesn't show it. We're better in so many different areas and the outcomes are still the same."

Niagara has gone to a more structured half-court offense, which has cut down its turnovers by nearly four per game and limited opponents' transition baskets. Its defense is stingier in part thanks to Armstrong's summer talks with Marquette coach Mike Deane and Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett, two strong defensive coaches. One of Armstrong's new assistants, Mike Rice, came to Niagara from Deane's staff.

But the free-throw shooting has disrupted Niagara's strategy of pounding the ball inside to Young and center Kevin Jobity.

"When you have good big people, you want to play power basketball, get the ball inside and go to the foul line," Armstrong said. "But then only one guy on your team is shooting over 70 percent at the line (guard Jeff O'Connor is 8 for 9) and that hurts what you're emphasizing."

Young has been one of the big culprits, hitting just 12 of 22.

"It seems like we've shot a thousand free throws in practice," he said. "But games and practices are two different situations. Sometimes when we get tired, we play too soft and lose a lot of focus. We have to fight through that."

Niagara will have to be strong on the boards against an active St. John's frontline. The Purple Eagles shot just 25.9 percent in a 62-40 loss to St. John's last year in Marine Midland Arena. The Red Storm tallied the game's final 12 points and beat Niagara for the eighth straight time.

As they have for most of their careers, senior swingman Felipe Lopez and center Zendon Hamilton are the Red Storm's leaders. Lopez leads St. John's in scoring (20.7) while Hamilton is averaging 19.1 points and 11.4 rebounds.

"It will be a hard job because of all their athletes and post players," Young said. "We have to contain them and believe in ourselves. Right now, nobody else does."

"We're the patsy, the one people think is the cupcake in this tournament," Armstrong admitted. "We're the one playing the house team in the first round at 9 o'clock and this field is by far the toughest tournament I've coached in here."

The field could have been worse. Drexel was a summer replacement -- for No. 3 Duke.

"We've got enough to worry about," Armstrong said with a grimace. "I don't even want to think about that."

1997-98.500.605 2.9 0.668.768.4 2- 5
1996-97.438.673 1.0-4.2569.674.711-17
1994-95.430.620-2.8-6.9068.179.8 5-25
1993-94.401.632-3.1-7.2666.276.7 6-21

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