Losses are beginning to collect for Niagara as are turnovers and arctic shooting percentages -- and Joe Mihalich is trying to figure out how to stop them all before it's too late.
Wednesday night's 88-63 setback to Quinnipiac was already the ninth of the season for the Purple Eagles (3-9), who lost 15 times last season. Mihalich's message after the Quinnipiac loss in front of 1,563 at the Gallagher Center was twofold: The Purple Eagles have to improve soon and the freshmen must follow the lead of senior point guard Anthony Nelson.
The Purple Eagles have now lost seven of their last eight and take the road again for a game at Drexel on Dec. 28. Whenever Niagara tried to cut deeper into Quinnipiac's lead, the Bobcats always found an answer. Twice in the final eight minutes the Purple Eagles cut the lead to 10 points only to have the Bobcats follow with baskets.
"They're a little beat down right now, and our job is to get them feeling better about themselves and stay the course," Mihalich said. "I told them, 'We ain't going nowhere, we have to get better.' We have to dribble better, shoot better, pass better."
Wednesday was the Purple Eagles' first game at the Gallagher Center since their 65-63 win over Mount St. Mary's on Nov. 22. After beating Bowling Green at the Legends Classic in Detroit, Niagara lost five consecutive games before upsetting St. Bonaventure at the Reilly Center on Dec. 11 and losing at Central Connecticut last Sunday. Niagara plays three more road games before returning home on Jan. 7 against Rider.
This is undoubtedly the most challenging period of Mihalich's career at Niagara. His only losing season came in 2005-06 (11-18) and that was sandwiched between a pair of NCAA Tournament berths. Since then, Niagara has averaged a little more than 21 wins a season.
"It's been a tough stretch, but this is still a group you want to be with and you love being with," he said. "I'm frustrated right now. I'm disappointed but I think the whole team is. It's going to do one of two things. It's going to make us better or it's going to wear us out. I have to make sure it makes us better."
At this point, Mihalich is pushing as many buttons as possible. He said he adjusted his practice schedule and the team showed progress during the Central Connecticut game on Sunday where they lost, 74-71. The Purple Eagles have problems scoring in large part because their most consistent scoring threat -- freshman guard Antoine Mason -- has missed most of the season with a stress fracture in his right foot.
So on Wednesday, Mihalich moved Marvin Jordan to the point and Nelson off the ball to try to ignite something -- anything -- offensively. Nelson shot just 3 of 10 from the field and committed five turnovers. Jordan led Niagara with 17 points but shot 2 of 10 from long range. The Purple Eagles hit a chilly 4 of 25 from long range for the game and committed 19 turnovers.
"We're trying to find somebody to make some shots," Mihalich said. "I think he's struggling more emotionally than anything else. [Nelson's] trying so hard and he's so far ahead than these other guys. He's trying to pick them up and carry them with him."
He added other than the fact that the losses and turnovers are piling up, the newcomers' inability to follow Nelson is the most troubling aspect of the early season.
"They need to act more like him, be more like him and they're not responding like they should," he said. "We have a gem here in Anthony Nelson as a leader."