Before his team embarked on a February to remember, before the talking heads heralded this group as the one that would return Niagara University to the NCAA Tournament, coach Joe Mihalich viewed the season as a work in progress, unfolding gradually.
So after the Purple Eagles defeated Illinois State last Friday -- a significant victory over a team considered one of the Top 50 in the country -- it came as no surprise that Mihalich described the importance of that game in the process. But as big as the Illinois State game was, tonight's game against Siena is much more noteworthy.
For the month of February, Niagara (22-7, 12-4 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) is 6-1 and there's plenty of tangible evidence to suggest that the Purple Eagles are progressing right on pace to peak in March. Tonight's game against the Saints (22-6, 15-1), who have already captured the league's regular season championship, serves as the measuring stick.
"This game is big," sophomore point guard Anthony Nelson said. "They're 15-1 and we're second in the league. This is basically a game to see how far we've come."
Niagara hopes to continue its run at 7 tonight at the Gallagher Center (105.1 FM, ESPNU) in the most buzz-worthy matchup prior to next week's MAAC Tournament in Albany.
"The big picture is we want to be playing good on March 7, 8, and 9," Mihalich said. "This is the ultimate test for us to see if we're ready for the conference tournament. Do we think we're ready? We're going to find out."
Against Illinois State, Niagara delivered more reasons to believe it is peaking at the right time, leaning on improved defense to survive some late offensive struggles in a 70-56 victory.
Siena looks to provide the Purple Eagles with yet another test as the best opponent on their schedule. The Saints' lone loss in league play came Feb. 7 at Rider and they've experienced a lot of success lately against Niagara. Siena has won all seven regular-season meetings in the Fran McCaffery era, including three straight at the Gallagher Center. Niagara's last win in the series was in the 2007 MAAC championship game.
The two teams last played on Jan. 24, with the Saints winning, 82-65, but after that, Niagara won seven consecutive games before losing at Rider on Feb. 18.
"The first time when we went down there, we weren't ourselves," Nelson said. "They played a great game and we didn't step up to the challenge. They're coming into our house and we can't allow that to happen again."
Senior guard Kenny Hasbrouck leads Siena with 15.0 points per game and has scored in double figures in 23 games. Junior swingman Edwin Ubiles is the second-leading scorer at 14.6 points, while junior forward Alex Franklin leads the frontcourt at 13.6 points and 7.2 rebounds. Prior to the season, Siena was picked by some to run the table in the MAAC and they came close, but they are well equipped to make a deep run into March.
The key for Niagara is limiting Siena's transition game and keeping them off the free-throw line.
"They don't have a weakness," Mihalich said. "They make you pay when you make a mistake. If you said to me, 'Give me an attribute, give me a quality of a team that's really good.' With them if you make a mistake, it's a layup at the other end."
Meanwhile, Canisius (9-18, 3-13 MAAC) goes for its third straight win when it hosts Marist (9-20, 4-12 MAAC) at the Koessler Center (7:30 p.m., TWC 13, Radio 710 AM).