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Big 4 hoops clamors for attention

The pro football season ends today with the playing of the Pro Bowl, an anticlimax if there ever was one. Still, the sport has such a hold on the nation, especially in Western New York, that even though memorable Pro Bowls are rare, there will be people who watch.

Even when the Bills are bad, as they were for the last two-thirds of the season, the fans still argue over just how bad they were and if there is any hope for the future. Meanwhile, the Sabres, playing very well, have to stand off to the side as usual until the last football is flung.

As the 2008 NHL season morphed into 2009, the Sabres got even better and the schedule-makers provided them with a welcome, four-game Western trip to lay low until the Super Bowl hype subsided.

But this February is different. The Sabres no longer have the stage to themselves. College basketball is going so well for local teams that hoops has every right to butt in to demand its share of attention.

The University at Buffalo struck early, winning the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii. Now Reggie Witherspoon's team is threatening to equal the glory of the school's football team by winning the Mid-American Conference championship, as their football schoolmates did in November.

Niagara, almost always an interesting, competitive team in the Joe Mihalich era, is on its way to another 20-plus victory season and joins UB as teams that will be seen on television in ESPN's BracketBusters on Feb. 20-21.

St. Bonaventure, meanwhile, has recovered nicely from the crushing scandal of 2003 under new coach Mark Schmidt and is spurred by freshman Andy Nicholson, five-time winner of the Atlantic 10's Rookie of the Week award.

That leaves Canisius, a team under repair by coach Tom Parrotta. The Golden Griffins too frequently have been a team under repair in the '90s, but by testimony of astute watchers of Western New York college hoops, the current Griffs are a team of promise although their won-loss record doesn't confirm that.

But why shouldn't Canisius be on a competitive level with their three local rivals, as well as their competition in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference? A lot of impressive things have been accomplished at the college in the last decade, but the men's athletic program has been unimpressive.

The sports conversation of older Griffs alumni still revolves around those nostalgic days of doubleheader Saturday nights in Memorial Auditorium. Well, the Aud is now under the wrecking ball and far too often Canisius basketball has borne the same look.

At the same time the Aud nostalgia was being woven, Catholic colleges were coming to the conclusion that big-time football had reached a point far beyond their budgets. For all but Notre Dame and Boston College, decisions were reached about basketball becoming their sport of choice. Take a look at the college rankings for the last several decades and it's clear the college authorities made a sound choice.

In the current polls, Marquette is eighth in both and Xavier seventh. Villanova is 16th in one and 17th in the other. Gonzaga is 18th in both. Dayton, Notre Dame, Siena, St. Mary's and Georgetown all received votes. In recent years Saint Joseph's of Philadelphia, Creighton, Saint Louis, Boston College and Loyola Marymount have had ranked teams. All but Notre Dame, Villanova, Siena and St. Mary's are Jesuit schools, as is Canisus.

Isn't it about time that Canisius made the commitment to become at least competitive with the best?

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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