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NIAGARA TITLE HOPES HINGE ON GAME WITH SIENA

St. Bonaventure still has nine games left to determine its fate in the Atlantic 10 East. Niagara has 10 to go in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, but its hopes of repeating as regular-season champion might hinge on a win tonight.

Bona survived its key conference matchup with a 57-56 win Jan. 15 over Temple. Niagara gets its big test tonight against MAAC leader Siena in the Gallagher Center (7; Empire, Radio 1440).

Siena is 14-6 overall, 8-2 in the MAAC after Saturday's 84-75 overtime win at Canisius. NU (11-6, 5-3) could end this evening anywhere from second to fifth in the MAAC.

The Bonnies (13-4) are in Cheese Country for their final non-conference game tonight at Wisconsin-Green Bay (8, Radio 1300, 95.7 FM). The Phoenix is 11-10 and tied for third in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference.

Meanwhile, Canisius (4-15, 3-7) tries to improve its ninth-place standing in the MAAC when it hosts Manhattan (10-8, 7-3) tonight in the Koessler Center (7, Radio 1520).

Here's a look at the Big 4's three leagues as the teams hit the halfway mark:

Atlantic 10

The Big Picture: Dayton is the runaway leader in the West and should finish with 22 or 23 wins. Temple is the favorite in the East with Bona and Massachusetts tied at 5-2 in the battle for second place -- and a first-round bye in the A-10 Tournament.

The Postseason Hopefuls: Temple and Dayton are getting close to NCAA Tournament locks. The Bonnies remain in good shape as well, provided they don't experience a prolonged losing streak. Ten wins in this league is almost always enough to get an NCAA bid and Bona is halfway there. UMass and Xavier still harbor NCAA hopes, but they're more likely to be vying with St. Joseph's and Fordham for NIT berths.

The Local Angle: Road losses to Fordham and George Washington hurt the Bonnies' momentum and dropped them to 33rd in the RPIs, but they should still be fine if they go 8-0 or 7-1 in the league at home -- a very real possibility. Temple, Dayton and Bona are a combined 12-0 thus far in A-10 home games.

MAAC

The Big Picture: Siena has not been nearly as dominant as expected. The Saints were 37th in the RPIs last year but are only No. 104 this season. They've already beaten Niagara once, however, and the Purple Eagles can't afford to fall three games behind them -- and have Siena clinch the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The stunner is Manhattan, which has been energized by new coach Bobby Gonzalez, the Buffalo State grad who made his mark as an assistant at Providence and Virginia. Surging Iona, which has won four straight league games, and Fairfield are tied at 6-4.

The Postseason Hopefuls: Siena would likely go to the NIT if it failed to win the conference's NCAA berth. Niagara would have an outside NIT shot if it lost to Siena in the MAAC final.

The Local Angle: If Siena eventually pulls away to win the league as expected, it will be important for Niagara not to finish fourth or fifth. That would guarantee the Purple Eagles wouldn't face the Saints in the MAAC Tournament until the final.

Canisius, meanwhile, is simply trying to get into sixth place and avoid the play-in games of the MAAC Tournament. The Griffs have not been forced to play a pre-quarterfinal since losing to St. Peter's in 1992 in Marty Marbach's final game as coach.

The Griffs, however, are a scary team. They've already beaten Fairfield and taken Siena to overtime. Siena coach Paul Hewitt, in fact, says Canisius has the best freshman class in the conference. That bodes well for the future, but all the youth has made for the school's most difficult season in eight years.

Mid-American

The Big Picture: The six teams above the University at Buffalo (5-15, 3-8) in the MAC East are all better than West co-leaders Northern Illinois and Eastern Michigan, both of whom are just 5-5 in the conference. Bowling Green (7-2) is the East's surprise leader after beating visiting Akron Saturday, 88-77. Akron (8-3) also stumbled Monday at UB and Kent (7-3) was stunned at home Saturday by Toledo, 75-62.

The Postseason Hopefuls: Kent remains in the top 20 of the RPIs and still is a solid NCAA bet. The rest of the MAC is balanced, leaving six teams ranked in the 70s or 80s. Thus, Bowling Green, Akron, Miami, Marshall, Ohio and Ball State will be hoping to hear from the NIT if they don't win the MAC.

The Local Angle: UB has already tripled its conference win total of last season, when it was 1-17. The Bulls' goal is to finish eighth overall and thus earn a home game in the first round of the MAC Tournament (the top three earn byes while Nos. 4-8 host Nos. 9-13 for the right to go to the quarterfinals in Cleveland).

UB has a shot because it has won three straight MAC home games and finishes the season with four in a row at Alumni Arena. The problem is that the Bulls are 0-15 on the road in MAC play in their two seasons. UB has three more road games, beginning Thursday at Marshall, before hosting Kent Feb. 12.

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