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For Big 4 teams, it's time to get real League play puts focus on consistency

The non-conference portion of the Big 4 men's season wraps up tonight and only the University at Buffalo has emerged with a winning record. But both Niagara and Canisius have shown signs they might be competitive when Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play begins in earnest Wednesday night (MAAC schools had two league games in December).

Meanwhile, the nightmare continues for St. Bonaventure as it plays its final nonleaguer tonight at Syracuse (7 p.m., Radio 1300 AM and 95.7 FM). The Bonnies have lost seven straight and will be looking for a shred of something positive in the Carrier Dome to take into Wednesday's Atlantic 10 opener against Saint Louis in the Reilly Center. Syracuse is 10-3.

"It's a good time for everybody to go home, clear their heads and be with their families for the holiday," Bona center Paul Williams said after last Saturday's 80-71 loss at Canisius. "Maybe we'll just come back with a different attitude going out to Syracuse and for the start of our conference."

Here's a look at where the four schools stand thus far:

>St. Bonaventure (3-9)

What we've learned: Playing the nation's weakest schedule is no secret to success. The theory of the Reilly Center being one of America's most hostile homes has also gone completely out the window -- unless you count the fans booing coach Anthony Solomon -- because Bona is just 1-4 there this year and 8-22 over the last three seasons. The Bonnies don't defend or rebound and they haven't scored 75 points since opening night. Senior guard Tyler Relph has worked hard to fill a leadership role and even called out his teammates after a 22-point loss at St. Francis (Pa.), but the former New York State Mr. Basketball has not been able to lift his production (7.9 points, 1.1 assists).

What needs to happen: Solomon keeps tweaking his starting lineup and should decide on a combination and stick with it. His problem is that many of his key players (notably forwards Michael Lee and A.J. Hawkins) are as apt to put together a four-point night as they are a 20-pointer.

"I've consistently talked about inconsistencies this year," Solomon said. "Those individual parts have all taken their turns being inconsistent. It's not been easy for us to get five-plus [players] going well on one night."

Solomon's supporters inside the school are quick to point out the team's conference record is 0-0 but a blowout tonight coupled with a bad start in A-10 play will almost certainly seal the fourth-year coach's demise.

>UB (8-5)

What we've learned: The sophomore class of Eric Moore, Greg Gamble, Andy Robinson and Vadim Fedotov has quickly blossomed, exactly what coach Reggie Witherspoon needed in the wake of heavy graduation losses. Moore has pushed his scoring average from 2.1 points to 12.8 and is easily the most improved player in the Big 4. Senior center Yassin Idbihi (14.7 points, 9.0 rebounds) has been badly missed for three games with an elbow problem and the Bulls need him back at an All-Mid-American Conference level. That means the 6-foot-10 Moroccan must shoot better than his current clip of 41.5 percent.

What needs to happen: Senior forward Parnell Smith (12.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg) must fill the stat sheet every night. He's already had three four-point games and three outings where he's grabbed two or fewer rebounds. That won't cut it in MAC play. The Bulls also have to keep their edge during a long break; they'll have two weeks off by the time they take the court again Jan. 7 at Bowling Green to open conference play.

>Niagara (5-7, 1-1)

What we've learned: The Purple Eagles can't survive long without Charron Fisher in the lineup. NU was 2-6 while its star player was on university suspension, then won two straight as Fisher totaled 49 points. Thursday's 18-point loss to previously winless Delaware, however, was completely unexpected and easily rates as the low point of Joe Mihalich's nine years as coach. NU was a preseason No. 2 choice in the MAAC but will it play up to its billing -- and the way it did in wins at Iona and Central Michigan -- or fail to show up like it did against Delaware?

What needs to happen: The offense needs to find some semblance of a shooting stroke and that goes doubly for senior guard Lorenzo Miles, who entered Friday's game with ugly career lows from the field (28.8 percent) and the arc (25.9). He's supposed to be a key weapon and he's just fifth on the team in scoring at 9.6 points. Freshman Tyrone Lewis (13 ppg) has missed the last three games with a knee injury and his return date is uncertain. He was providing huge spark at both ends of the floor and the Purple Eagles need him.

>Canisius (5-7, 0-2)

What we've learned: Freshman point guard Frank Turner was a terrific addition as a summer signee by new coach Tom Parrotta and easily wrested the job away from Bret Wackerly, who has since transferred. Parrotta has done a super job of quickly putting the passion back into this program and a down year in the MAAC could allow the Golden Griffins to crack the top half of the league in his first season.

What needs to happen: Returnees Darnell Wilson, Chuck Harris and Corey Herring must play like seniors and avoid off nights. Junior college transfers Shaun James and Pawel Malesa will have to increase their output because they'll get more minutes since senior forward Ola Matti has decided to leave early after earning his degree. James has been a good rebounder and Malesa a three-point gunner, but now they'll be asked to become more complete players.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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