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ONCE AGAIN, THIS WON'T BE THE YEAR BIG 4 PUTS 1970 TO REST

So, I asked Niagara coach Joe Mihalich the other day, how long did it take you to get over the loss to Siena in last year's Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title game?

"You're assuming I'm over it, huh?" Mihalich said. "I don't know if you ever get over it."

Western New York sports fans can relate to that. If you're a hoops lover in these parts, life is one perpetual disappointment. It's bad enough being an insignificant speck in the basketball firmament. You also have to deal with the crushing losses that come whipping through like a harsh wind every March.

Get over it? We haven't recovered from Bob Lanier's knee injury in the 1970 NCAA Tournament. We're looking on in horror, alongside St. Bonaventure's Billy Kalbaugh, as Lanier slumps on the floor in Columbia, S.C., after colliding with Villanova's Chris Ford late in the Bonnies' win in the regional final.

The Big 4 teams haven't won an NCAA tourney game since Lanier went down. We went 18 years - from 1978 to '96 - without getting a single team into the Big Dance. The Bonnies came within an eyelash of breaking the winless streak in 2000 before losing in double-overtime to Kentucky.

Maybe I should call Jim Baron and ask him if he's over it yet (or if he regrets not fouling Tayshaun Prince with a three-point lead in the final 10 seconds of regulation).

Let's not even discuss the women's teams; none of the four has even reached the NCAA Tournament since Bona, Niagara and Canisius upgraded to D-I in 1986.

We're going on 33 years for the men's participants. Nearly one-third of a century. It gets tiresome, referring to 1970. The Sabres and Braves didn't exist. Nixon was president. A loaf of bread cost 24 cents, a postage stamp 6 cents. "Let It Be" and "ABC" were battling for the top of the pop music charts.

It was a very long time ago. It would be nice to leave the Lanier game behind. But until one of our teams wins a game, I'll keep trotting it out every couple of years, like an ill-fitting old suit coat in the back of the closet.

Regrettably, this doesn't figure to be the year when it happens. All four men's teams promise to be competitive. Niagara and Canisius are expected to be in the top half of the MAAC. St. Bonaventure should be a dangerous, exhilarating team again. UB has another solid recruiting class and will be better than people think.

But a win in the Big Dance? It's highly unlikely. Despite the lofty expectations for Canisius and Niagara, there's probably less than a 50-50 chance that any of the Big 4 teams will get into the NCAA Tournament.

It will be a little easier if the Griffs or Purple Eagles win the MAAC's regular season. The MAAC is one of three leagues (the West Coast and Horizon are the others) that have voted to give their regular-season champion a bye in the conference tournament.

The MAAC's regular-season champ gets moved directly to the semifinals. That will ensure the top seed cannot be upset in the quarterfinals - as Rider was when Canisius' Hodari Mallory banked in a shot at the buzzer in last year's tourney.

"We wanted to reward our top team for winning the regular season," said Larry Keating, the MAAC's assistant commissioner. "In the end, it gives that team a slightly better chance of winning the tournament."

It also gives mid-major leagues such as the MAAC a better chance of getting their top teams in the NCAA Tournament, which means a higher seed and a better chance of actually winning a first-round game.

The new format isn't entirely fair. Under the new setup, the MAAC's No. 5 seed has to play four games to win the title. The No. 1 seed has to play only two. Two years ago, the difference between first and fifth was just one game in the regular season.

Still, you can't blame the MAAC for wanting to enhance its chances of winning a game in the Big Dance. Until Siena won the play-in game last year, the league hadn't won an NCAA Tournament game since 1995, when Manhattan beat Oklahoma.

It's hard to be optimistic about our chances this year. Canisius and Niagara reached the MAAC title game the last two years. But neither had the interior defense necessary to win a game of that magnitude. Niagara is loaded with talent, but the Purple Eagles are a little young and they're still suspect on the interior.

Canisius has experience. If I had to win a tournament game tomorrow and had my pick of any Big 4 player, Brian Dux would be my first choice. Mike MacDonald, who has won six MAAC tourney games during the last three years, is a dangerous coach in March. But the Griffs aren't tough enough on the blocks, either.

St. Bonaventure had the worst defensive field-goal percentage in the nation a year ago. They're improved on the interior. How could they not be? But they're not improved enough to win the Atlantic 10 Tournament or to get an NCAA at-large bid. Keep in mind, the A-10 didn't get a single at-large berth a year ago.

UB is a little soft inside, too. They're a year away from making noise in the Mid-American Conference. Next season, when Turner Battle is a junior and Reggie Witherspoon has two strong recruiting classes in tow, they could be a team to watch.

Next year could be the year. Niagara will have everybody back. St. Bonaventure will have Marques Green back as a senior, and Mike Gansey could be one of the best players in the A-10 as a junior. UB will have virtually its entire roster back.

Maybe we can even watch one of our teams do it in person. Next year, Buffalo will host another NCAA men's subregional in HSBC Arena. The event was a smashing success in 2000. Imagine what it would be like if a Big 4 team was in the field and won a first-round game.

It would be the finest moment in local basketball since the Bonnies made the Final Four. There's no telling how long it would take us to recover this time.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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