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LACKLUSTER SECOND HALF PULLS DOWN BIG 4 GRADES

The Big 4 basketball season turned out decidedly average.

It didn't start that way.

St. Bonaventure, Canisius and UB all had legitimate postseason hopes at the season's midway mark. Then Niagara awoke, winning nine of its last 12 games to become the top sleeper heading into the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament.

But there was no March Madness for the Western New York quartet. The games were simply maddening, and the teams finished a combined 59-55.

Niagara and Canisius suffered gut-wrenching overtime defeats in the MAAC quarterfinals, with NU's loss to Loyola ultimately costing coach Jack Armstrong his job. UB's final foray in the Mid-Continent Conference Tournament fell short, as Valparaiso ended the Rasaun Young-Mike Martinho era in the semifinals.

St. Bonaventure lost an NIT game at Vanderbilt after going down in flames in the second half of an Atlantic 10 quarterfinal loss to Xavier. The Bonnies haven't made the A-10 semis since 1984.

Since final exams did not produce good results, the teams' final grades are quite a bit lower than their glossy January reviews. Here's a final look at the Big 4:

St. Bonaventure (17-15)

Frontcourt: It will be tough to replace Rashaan Palmer, who finished his career as the No. 8 scorer in school history. But Palmer's campaign will forever be shrouded by a 1 1/2 -game discipline suspension for breaking curfew. Without Palmer, Bona blew home games against weaklings Virginia Tech and Duquesne, thus losing its chance to climb on to the NCAA bubble.

When center Caswell Cyrus plays, he is a star. When he sulks, the sophomore is a non-factor. Cyrus, who didn't play high school basketball in Toronto, lets his inexperience show when things don't go his way. Terrence Durham is a solid rebounder who has developed little offensive skill in three years. Freshman Peter Van Paassen has more touch but needs a summer in the weight room with Durham. Grade: B.

Backcourt: Senior James Singleton was a revelation at off guard and a salvation when Tim Winn missed six games with an ankle injury. Singleton had 271 points this season, 39 more than his first three years combined, and exceeded his previous totals for assists, steals, rebounds and three-pointers. Talk about a career year.

The same can't be said for Winn. The Niagara Falls native must understand the Bonnies can't win if he fires 10 three-pointers per game. He was never a long-range gunner at LaSalle High and shouldn't be in Olean either. A 26-percent three-point shooter should not be attempting 161 treys, as Winn did this year. Red-shirt sophomore David Capers was strong off the bench and took most of the minutes away from junior college transfer Isaac King, who slumped badly after producing for the first 20 games. Grade: B-.

Bench: Capers provided offense, leaping ability and defense. He was, however, careless with the ball too often. Van Paassen was also a contributor, with 15 points in the upset of Rhode Island being a highlight. Grade: C .

Coaching: Jim Baron and his staff are doing some of the best recruiting in the Big 4 in the last 30 years. They are getting more commitments and more visits from top players than most observers thought would ever be possible at the remote Southern Tier campus.

That said, Baron did not distinguish himself on the bench.

Sure, the Bonnies beat Xavier, Rhode Island and UMass at home, but their road record was 3-11. Baron is just 7-40 in A-10 road games in his six years -- and hasn't beaten anyone away from the Reilly Center the last three seasons except woeful Fordham. That has to change for this team to be an NCAA-caliber club.

Baron has to harness Winn when his point guard is running amok and has to get inside Cyrus' head when his center is drifting aimlessly on the court. Grade: B.

Looking ahead: As Winn said after the Vanderbilt game, this team heads into next season with experience. Durham will be a senior; Winn, Cyrus and Capers will be juniors; and Van Paassen will enter his sophomore year having played in 28 games.

Baron and his staff will have plenty of new blood to help out. If off guard Jermaine Clarke gets his academics in order, the Elizabeth, N.J., native will battle Capers for playing time. Bona locked up point guard Ernest Bremer of Cleveland last November, before his strong senior year brought many big-name schools calling and leaving disappointed.

The Bonnies are also at or near the top of the pecking order for three impact players: 6-6 Robert Cheeks of powerful St. Anthony's in Jersey City, N.J.; 6-7 Brent Klassen, who gave a verbal commitment to Indiana out of high school but landed at a New Hampshire prep school; and 6-4 Kevin Houston, a former New York City star now at a junior college in Kansas.

Baron & Co. could really use at least two of them, because the NIT won't be acceptable anymore. It will be NCAA or bust in 1998-99.

Canisius (13-14)

Frontcourt: Jamie Cammaert was one of the area's most erratic players, a double-double waiting to happen when he was interested and a footnote in the box score when he wasn't. Cammaert, however, was heroic in the MAAC Tournament loss to Siena. Dogged by a sprained ankle that was hurting much more than he let on, he nearly willed the Griffs to a win in the final two minutes of regulation. Fellow junior Keith Lambkin has become a good slasher in the lane, and freshman center Darren Fenn has the look of a future all-league player. Grade: B.

Backcourt: Kevin Thompson's senior year was a disappointment. The school's all-time leader in three-pointers hit just 27.8 percent from beyond the arc and couldn't provide the same leadership as seniors from past seasons. Kevin Worley did a good job replacing the graduated Bam Moore, hitting 85 percent from the line and 40 percent from three-point range. The problem came when either went out of the game or got in foul trouble. There were no suitable replacements. Grade: C.

Bench: When Matt Tribul went down for the season with ankle and Achilles tendon trouble, Fenn moved into the starting lineup and thinned the bench. Center/forward Dale Sawyers hit 68 percent from the field, but he can't be on the court in crunch time until he improves his woeful 38 percent free-throw shooting. Swingman Mike McCarthy led the team in steals and was a three-point threat, but questions persist about his maturity after he was suspended for a game for the second straight year. Grade: C-.

Coaching: First-year coach Mike MacDonald pushed his players to a 9-4 start, knowing there would be immediate comparisons to John Beilein's success if the Griffs stumbled out of the gate. But MacDonald wasn't able to squeeze a win out of his team during the 13-day January stretch when the Griffs lost six straight and suddenly slipped to 9-10. Canisius led or was tied in the second half of five of those games.

The team's road woes were puzzling; the Griffs won their first five away from home for the first time in school history, then dropped their last eight. MacDonald regrouped the team for the MAAC Tournament, and it played 32 spectacular minutes at Siena. It wasn't enough. Grade: B-.

Looking Ahead: Olean Walsh graduate Andy Bush, a 6-8 forward, sat out this year as a redshirt, and the inferior competition he faced in high school likely means he'll need some adjustment to college. More immediate impact should come from 6-2 guard Dorian McClure, a junior college transfer who practiced in the second semester and will have two years of eligibility left. McClure appears to be a logical successor for Thompson and could provide more scoring at off guard, although he won't be nearly the defensive presence Thompson was. McClure may help the outside shooting, but McDonald is going to need some scoring forwards to replace Cammaert and Lambkin when they graduate after next season.

Niagara (14-13)

Frontcourt: Jermaine Young took off 50 pounds in the offseason and became one of the East's most improved players. Junior college addition Alvin Young provided instant offense but had a poor game in the MAAC Tournament. Center Mike Piwerka was an offensive liability but became a consistent rebounder in the second half. Center Kevin Jobity was a preseason all-conference pick who ended up as a sixth man, but the role relieved pressure on him and he responded well. Grade: B.

Backcourt: Jeremiah Johnson finally found some consistency, and Armstrong learned to co-exist with his point guard's out-of-control stretches. By the end of the season, sophomore Luke Dobrich was giving Johnson a reliable 10-12 minutes per game of backup. The Purple Eagles will be better without Jeff O'Connor, a weak defender whose streak of 28 straight missed threes in the MAAC Tournament was a big reason NU never got to the final in his four years. Grade: C-.

Bench: This became NU's strength in the second half. Jobity was a force inside, Dobrich could stroke the three-pointers and Akbar Waheed provided help on the defensive end. The bench had a 39-4 scoring advantage against Loyola and deserved to play the next day. Grade: B .

Coaching: For all the good will he generated in the community and among the media, Armstrong simply didn't win enough. That's the cold bottom line. This Niagara team -- which drubbed St. John's and gave Princeton trouble for 38 minutes -- was much better than its two predecessors that went to the MAAC semifinals. That made the loss to Loyola even more distasteful.

Rev. Paul Golden, the university's president, was not happy with that defeat and has to be alarmed at all the empty seats in the Gallagher Center. So despite the first winning season in five years and the one season left on Armstrong's contract, Golden took the ultimate action. Grade: C-.

Looking Ahead: Golden says the search for Armstrong's successor will be a national one, but is this a job an assistant from a top program would want? When Siena fired Bob Beyer last year, it had many applicants from big-name programs and settled on Villanova assistant Paul Hewitt. Tradition might dictate similar interest in the Niagara job, but the nitty-gritty lies in the school's commitment.

Does it want to keep a solid mid-major basketball program and maintain more than 90 years of tradition? Or will it chuck real backing of basketball for the pipe dream that Western New York will suddenly surge with interest in college hockey, a sport with virtually no television exposure and limited interest in most areas of the country? We'll see.

UB (15-13)

Frontcourt: The Bulls had no inside presence whatsoever when they played quality opponents. Robert Harris has a huge heart but is simply too small to be a Division I power forward. Nikolai Alexeev had typical freshman trouble and has limited athletic ability. There was no help from the bench. Grade: D.

Backcourt: All-time scoring leader Rasaun Young was actually playing like a small forward or even power forward much of the season, but if UB had any legitimate Division I frontcourt players, he'd have been an off guard. Young and gunner Mike Martinho finished as two of the program's all-time greats. Seniors Scott McMillen and Matt Clemens and freshman Ryan Peterson were solid contributors, but Peterson is going to have to look to score now that the backcourt has suffered huge graduation losses. Grade: A-.

Bench: We've heard so much about Jordanian Zaid Alkhas the last two years, but we've rarely seen what all the fuss was about. The lone exception was his 20-point second half outburst at St. Bonaventure. The only real help coach Tim Cohane got off the bench came when Clemens or Peterson weren't in the starting lineup. Grade: C-.

Coaching: Young and Martinho were certainly cornerstones to build around, but Cohane never got any frontcourt talent to go with them. It was the Bulls' fatal flaw when they tried to match up with Valparaiso, the power of the Mid-Con. How maddening it must have been for Cohane to see Valpo in the NCAA Sweet 16 when you realize the Bulls were good enough to lose there this year on a Bryce Drew buzzer-beater. If only UB had some forwards and a center.

That was Dan Bazzani's lament five years ago when he was fired and Cohane was brought on. Cohane immediately found Myron Banks and Kelvin Robinson at junior colleges and the Bulls suddenly became 18-game winners. He'll need to do more of the same this offseason. Grade: C-.

Looking Ahead: The Bulls were only 13-13 against Division I teams this year (mismatches against Rochester and Embry-Riddle pumped the record) and may have been Western New York's biggest disappointment because they were in a last-chance season for all the seniors. Heading into the much stronger Mid-American Conference, they figure to take some lumps for a couple of years.

Cohane should use that move to his advantage. The pressure to win won't be nearly as large and it should be easier to recruit players to a better league; Peterson came to UB largely because of the shift to the MAC.

Louis Campbell, a 6-2 guard, and Will Campbell a 6-8 power forward, were both at UB this year getting their academics in order and should be eligible next year. As sophomores, both figure to have a good chance to start. Like he did with Banks and Robinson, Cohane has to mine the JUCO ranks for immediate help.

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