It's been nearly 10 months since Niagara basketball coach Joe Mihalich was cutting the nets in HSBC Arena and celebrating the end of his school's 35-year NCAA Tournament drought with three of the program's greatest seniors. From the highest point of his coaching career, Mihalich is now dealing with his darkest days on Monteagle Ridge.
Still, the Purple Eagles' eighth-year coach isn't going to buckle at the adversity of a 2-6 record. Or a six-game losing streak that's his longest at Niagara. Or the departure of two freshmen and the redshirting of two others.
Nope. Mihalich isn't letting anybody in his program feel sorry for himself.
"Our goals are the same. Nothing has changed at all. There's no panic here, no sense of any of that stuff," Mihalich said by phone Tuesday as he headed on a recruiting trip. "We're close, so doggone close you can still feel it. We've been a one-play-here, one-play-there kind of team so far. That's why we don't sleep a lot at night."
The Purple Eagles are looking for an immediate change of luck at 8:30 Friday night, when they play Appalachian State (4-6) in the first round of the Duquesne Holiday Classic in Pittsburgh. In Saturday's game, they'll play either Troy (4-5), the run-and-gun outfit they beat in the 2004 National Invitation Tournament, or host Duquesne (2-7).
"I love this because it's a mini-season," Mihalich said. "After the first night if we're fortunate to win we can be playing for a championship, and that's a pretty neat thing for our program. (Niagara hasn't won an in-season tournament since the 1973 Kodak Classic in Rochester.)
"The way our season unraveled a little here lately, nothing could be better for us. We're going to start the new year Dec. 30 and see if we can win a ballgame. Everyone else's new year is Jan. 1. At Niagara, it's Dec. 30, and our spirit and enthusiasm are still great."
The Purple Eagles' spirit has been tested during their streak by four losses in which they have led by double digits in the second half. Niagara also trailed by just three points in the final six minutes of a loss to the University at Buffalo and was down by one in the second half of its last game, an 80-59 loss last Wednesday at Notre Dame.
The Notre Dame contest was the first Niagara played with its current eight-man roster. Only one of the Purple Eagles' four freshmen, 6-foot-9 Mike Moberg, had played in the first seven games, and none will appear the rest of the season. Moberg, from Maple Grove, Minn., and 6-3 guard Eni Cuka of Weston, Fla., both left school Dec. 17 to pursue opportunities elsewhere.
Kamau Gordon, a 6-7, 260-pounder from Greenwich, Conn., and 6-5 Andrew Patterson of Hartford have both accepted a red-shirt assignment, will retain four years of eligibility and continue to practice. Mihalich has never gone deep into his bench in the past, but he's dangerously thin this year in the event of any injuries or foul trouble.
"If you do this long enough, you'll have crazy, quirky situations, and that's how I see this. I do not in any way see this as losing a whole class," Mihalich said. "We feel the two guys redshirting are going to have four good years at Niagara. This just won't be one of them.
"They weren't going to play much now, but we're investing another year in them. Next year, they'll still be freshmen but they'll be older, wiser, bigger, stronger, faster, the whole thing."
Mihalich has reason to dispute the notion he's lost a whole class. Aside from the fact Gordon and Patterson will be available next year, Niagara is getting big contributions this season from a newcomer in Kent State transfer Clif Brown (9.0 points, 5.9 rebounds). And 6-3 sophomore Charron Fisher has made major improvement, going from 5.6 points and 3.2 rebounds in a bit role last year to team-high figures of 18.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game this season.
And don't think Mihalich is just looking to the future, either. He's reminding this team of his 2002-03 squad, which started 1-5 but finished 17-12 and lost a double-overtime heartbreaker to Manhattan in the semifinals of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament.
"I told that team, 'Tough times don't last but tough people do,' and these guys are hearing that, too," Mihalich said. "In Fisher, (James) Mathis and Lorenzo Miles, we have a corps of guys who are our heart and soul. Maybe it's a total cliche, but all we need is a win. You get one, you get your swagger back and the bounce in your step. I still believe these guys will."