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Conference play to answer Big 4 questions

Canisius and Niagara get back to it this week while St. Bonaventure and the University at Buffalo commence their conference journeys. Here's how the Big 4 teams shape up heading into the meat of their seasons.

*Canisius: Griffs (6-7) are dangerous when they're hitting the boards hard, creating turnovers and heading up floor in transition. It's when they're reduced to a half-court game that the offense becomes susceptible to uncertainty and indecision. Canisius lost at Saint Peter's on Monday night, 63-55, and will host defending champion Siena at 7 Friday night, followed at 2 p.m. Sunday by Rider (which has beaten Southern California and TCU). Fairfield, which trounced Siena in Albany, is living up to its billing as the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference preseason favorite.

*Niagara: Purple Eagles (3-12) can only hope that their fortunes turn around when freshman and leading scorer Antoine Mason returns from a stress fracture. He sat out Monday night's 70-48 loss at Fairfield but could be back for this weekend's home pair (Rider at 9 p.m. Friday, Siena at 2 p.m. Sunday). But can one guard make a pronounced difference on one of the country's worst shooting and rebounding teams?

*St. Bonaventure: A lackluster effort against visiting Marshall on Sunday raises the question of whether the starting five's already faltering under a heavy burden. The Bonnies' bench has scored just 45 points all season. And point guard Ogo Adegboye has played all but seven minutes in the last seven games. How's he going to hold up when A-10 play begins with Saturday afternoon's visit from Charlotte (4 p.m.) -- followed by games against Temple, Rhode Island and Xavier? All would have been well had prized recruit Elijah Carter not reneged on his commitment. Bonnies (7-5) open the week on Wednesday night with a rematch at Arkansas-Little Rock. Bona won the first meeting, 77-64, at the Reilly Center.

*University at Buffalo: Bulls (8-4) have become the most intriguing Big 4 team thanks to Byron Mulkey's solid play at the point and the instant emergence of freshman forward Javon McCrea. Offensive flow has never been better during Reggie Witherspoon's tenure. They have joined Akron, Kent State, Ohio, Ball State and Western Michigan as legit title contenders in the wide-open Mid-American Conference. Just the Bulls' luck that this is the year they get road crossovers against Ball State and WMU, making it a tougher road to a first-round bye. They won at Cornell on Monday night, 78-66, and open MAC play at 7 Saturday against visiting Bowling Green.

*Stat Watch: Team Category -- UB has ascended to 24th in the country in field goal percentage (.486) and 41st in field goal percentage defense (38.2) Conversely, it's a frigid story at Niagara, where the Purple Eagles are No. 333 (out of 346) in field goal percentage (.374), No. 344 in three-point field goal percentage (.261) and No. 332 in rebounding margin (minus-10.9). Individuals, Big 4: UB's Mulkey remains second in the nation in steals at 3.5, one-tenth of a point behind Montana's Will Cherry Bulls freshman forward Javon McCrea is up to second in field goal percentage (.672) and won't be catching national leader Shane Johnson of Northern Arizona (.778) anytime soon. Johnson's a 6-7 senior Bona's junior center Andrew Nicholson has cracked the Top 10 in scoring (10th, 22.4). Individuals, Big 4 Conference Foes: Iona's Scott Machado is tied for first in the country in assists (8.3) and Ohio University's D.J. Cooper is fourth (7.4). Siena's Ryan Rossister is second in rebounding (13.2). Northern Illinois guard Xavier Silas ranks third in scoring (24.5) and is one of the nation's top free throw shooters (19th, .907). St. Joseph's C.J. Aiken, a 6-9 frosh, ranks eighth in blocks at 3.31, with a season high of seven against Villanova on Dec. 3.

*The Week Nationwide: No. 15 Notre Dame hosts No. 4 Connecticut tonight to complete perhaps the most rugged three-game stretch any team in the nation will face all season. The Irish entertained No. 9 Georgetown on Wednesday (a 69-55 win) and visited No. 5 Syracuse on Saturday (a 70-58 loss). SEC football has nothing on Big East basketball. UConn heads down to Texas on Saturday to face the No. 14 Longhorns Unbeaten and No. 2 Ohio State just might be in for its first single-digit differential of the season when Minnesota visits Sunday. But don't bet on it. The Buckeyes might be the most efficient offensive team in the land: fifth in field goal percentage and 11th in points per game and assists per game. Michigan's made huge strides under Newfane native John Beilein, but are the Wolverines ready for No. 3 Kansas on Sunday, followed by Ohio State three days later? Freshman Blake McLimans (Hamburg) hasn't seen action the last two games for the Wolverines, both in Big Ten play. He had double-digit minutes in four non-conference games.

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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