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NU TRIES TO GET ROLLING VERSUS GRIFFS

This is hardly the way Niagara expected to begin its season.

Picked by virtually every national publication and Web site to be one of the best teams in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the Purple Eagles have stumbled to an 0-2 start.

When Niagara hosts Canisius today in the Gallagher Center (4; Empire, Radio 1440 AM and 105.1 FM), it will be trying to avoid going 0-3 for the first time in 13 years.

"We know we have a long way to go," NU coach Joe Mihalich said Friday. "But no one within this program questions us. We can be good and there's no doubt about it. There's also no doubt that right now we're not. We've identified the enemy and it's us."

There are only about 800 tickets left for the contest, the MAAC opener for both schools. The Gallagher Center box office opens today at 3 p.m. and tickets are $12 and $6. Niagara won all three meetings last year, including a 70-60 decision in the MAAC Tournament semifinals, and leads the all-time series, 82-71.

Mihalich wouldn't admit he's been a drill sergeant at practice since Monday's 94-69 debacle at Central Florida, but the implication was clear.

"Let's just say practices the last couple of days have gone the way they should have been going and leave it at that," he said.

Several problems have cropped up for NU. Its defense allowed 92 points in the opener to Marshall and 94 at UCF and both opponents shot 50 percent from the floor, 17 of 32 from three-point range.

Niagara's reserves have combined for only 13 points in the two games and are just 3 for 17 from the field. Junior center James Reaves, a consensus All-MAAC choice, has just 19 points but has grabbed 19 rebounds. Of bigger concern is that he missed nine minutes of the second half against Marshall due to foul trouble and was ejected Monday after picking up two technical fouls in the second half.

"You try to forget about a game like that, but you have to keep it in the back of your mind too," said Reaves, who was just 2 for 8 from the floor. "It should make us remember what we have to do. If we don't do the things we're supposed, we'll keep losing like that."

"People point at Reaves but he's still just one guy," Mihalich said. "He's rebounding well, like we thought he would, and his scoring will come."

The Purple Eagles have not started a season with three losses since opening the 1989-90 campaign 0-6 under first-year coach Jack Armstrong.

"I'm definitely surprised we're 0-2. Nobody expected that," said junior forward Tremmell Darden, who has poured in a team-high 50 points in the two games. "It's better that your bad games are early.

"There's a growth period for every team in the nation and you can have these bumps early in the year. Look at somebody like Kansas. They're ranked No. 2 and they lose to (unranked) North Carolina (in Wednesday's Preseason NIT semifinals). We just have to remember it's not how you start your season, it's how you finish it."

That's one reason there's no panic in the NU camp. Niagara started 3-6 last year but finished 18-14.

"We've got to be focused right now," Reaves said. "No way we should be losing like this. We've got to get it together and bring work ethic every day to practice, games, film (sessions), everything."

Canisius is 1-1 after Tuesday's 70-63 loss to Saint Joseph's in the Koessler Center. The Purple Eagles expect the Griffs to hit the floor today bent on avenging some scores from last season.

"The intensity level changes against them," Darden said. "It's the whole 'in-town' thing. We see their guys playing pickup over the summer. It's a conference game and a rival and that really picks things up."

"I understand they've got some revenge to get on us," Reaves said. "But we have to worry about ourselves. We have to get on the right track and get this thing going."

In today's other Big 4 games:

Coach Jim Baron, the longtime boss at St. Bonaventure, brings his Rhode Island team to Alumni Arena for a nonconference game against the University at Buffalo (8:15, Radio 1520 AM).

Rhody (2-0) opened its new 7,500-seat on-campus arena, the Ryan Center, with a bizarre 73-71 overtime win Tuesday over Southern California. A three-pointer by the Trojans was disallowed after television replays showed it came after the final buzzer. UB (1-2) is coming off a 66-65 loss Wednesday at Detroit.

St. Bonaventure, meanwhile, stages a pseudo-home game against Saint Louis at Rochester's Blue Cross Arena (4, Radio 1300 AM, 95.7 FM). The Bonnies defeated Virginia Tech and Michigan in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands before losing to Brigham Young in the championship game.

Saint Louis (0-2) is expected to finish near the bottom of Conference USA's tough American Division.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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