Canisius continued its recent run of success against St. Bonaventure on Saturday night. But the Griffs face a far more daunting task tonight in the Koessler Center -- reversing a slide against their other longtime Little Three rival.
When Niagara hits campus for the teams' Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference opener, it will carry a 6-1 record over the last seven meetings into the 158th revival of the series.
"A lot of people in our league are trying to find themselves. Not Niagara," Canisius coach Mike MacDonald said after practice Tuesday night. "They've hit the ground running and they know what they want. That's what makes them so impressive."
The Canisius-Niagara game is the marquee matchup on a busy night of Big 4 action. Elsewhere, the University at Buffalo (2-1) has a 7 p.m. game in Alumni Arena against Colgate (Radio 1340 AM), and the women's teams from Niagara (1-3) and St. Bonaventure (1-2) stage a 7 p.m. showdown in NU's Gallagher Center.
Down the Thruway, the Bona men face the enormous challenge of trying to avoid the first 0-4 start in school history when they play No. 3 Syracuse (5-0) in the Carrier Dome (7 p.m., Radio 1300 AM, 95.7 FM).
Things figure to be much tighter in Koessler, as six of the last 10 Canisius-Niagara meetings have been decided by six or fewer points. Niagara won both last year, the 109-106 overtime thriller in HSBC Arena and an 83-77 decision in Gallagher.
The Purple Eagles (3-1) are coming off Saturday's 102-81 destruction of St. John's, a game that saw them build a stunning 61-27 lead a minute before halftime.
"We're playing the best team in our league," said MacDonald, whose team is 1-1. "There's no doubt in my mind. A MAAC team was up by 30 on a Big East team -- in the first half! Come on, how often can that happen? I don't think it ever has."
Niagara is averaging 83 points, largely because of the dominance of senior forward Juan Mendez. He's averaging 26.5 and poured in 34 against St. John's. Mendez set a career-high and HSBC record with 37 in last year's first meeting with the Griffs.
"This game is our Duke-North Carolina, but it's going to be tough because Mendez is an NBA prospect," said 6-8 Canisius freshman Rigoberto Sargeant, who will initially draw the defensive assignment. "We have to make a statement, and it's a big game for me as a freshman. I can imagine Mendez will be hard to guard because (Providence All-American) Ryan Gomes had problems against him and he's definitely a first-round NBA pick."
Canisius probably needs to focus on denying entry passes rather than double-teaming Mendez when the ball gets into the low post. By then, it's too late to stop him.
"My hope is we guard him out in the parking lot right off the bus," cracked MacDonald.
"You don't want to give up a lot of easy baskets," Griffs senior guard Dewitt Doss said. "If he does score, you have to make him work for it. And you have to make him play defense, too. We'll definitely help 'Sarge' out. We believe in him. The only thing he's going to do is get better. We've seen it every day and in every game."
Sargeant, who had a double-double in the opener against Howard, is averaging eight points and 7.5 rebounds in two games. He said the 67-61 win over Bona was a good introduction to collegiate rivalries -- and that he's right at home with archrivals wearing purple.
"Back home (in East Stroudsburg, Pa.), we played Stroudsburg and they wore purple and white just like Niagara," he said. "The Bonaventure game was a good experience going into Niagara. They're going to want to come out and get a jump on us right from the gate. We have to stay strong.
"Coach MacDonald has told us to have faith in each other. It's a team game. We believe in 'five guys, one brain' and 'five guys, one heartbeat' (the slogan the team adopted in the wake of the May death of senior Richard Jones). We have each other's back."
St. Bonaventure is 0-3 for the first time since 1994-95 and trails the series with Syracuse, 20-3, including 10 straight losses since a 1981 win in Olean. Syracuse won last year, 87-78, in Rochester's Blue Cross Arena. Big 4 teams are 0-18 against Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.
Colgate (2-2) comes to UB on a two-game winning streak (over Cornell and Division III Juniata). UB beat the Red Raiders, 72-49, last year in Hamilton. The game is the Bulls' last tuneup before Saturday night's Alumni showdown with defending Mid-American Conference champion Western Michigan.