For Canisius, this weekend presents an opportunity to reinforce its capabilities and prove it can play with the big boys in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. For Niagara, it's another chance to act as spoiler, to continue building a foundation for next season and beyond.
The Golden Griffs and the Purple Eagles face the tallest of conference tasks as both Fairfield and Iona, the MAAC co-leaders, make their annual tour through Western New York. The Stags, led by standout sophomore guard Derek Neeham, are 13-4 overall, 6-1 in the MAAC and have won 12 of their last 13. Iona (12-6, 6-1), powered by the inside-out combination of guard Scott Machado (the nation's assist leader) and forward Mike Glover (one of the country's leading scorers), has strung four straight victories for first-year coach Tim Cluess.
Fairfield meets Canisius in the Koessler Center at 7 tonight and faces Niagara in the Taps Gallagher Center at 2 p.m. Sunday. Iona visits Niagara at 7 tonight and hits Canisius at 2 p.m. Sunday.
The other Big 4 teams are both on the road. The University at Buffalo meets Mid-American rival Ohio at 3 p.m. Saturday in Athens, while St. Bonaventure looks to snap a three-game Atlantic 10 losing streak at 2 p.m. Saturday against George Washington.
Iona's Cluess was hired after four years at the helm of C.W. Post when Kevin Willard left the Gaels to take Seton Hall's head position. For Cluess the job was made all the more attractive when Glover, a Bronx native, joined Iona out of the College of Eastern Utah. It was a major signing, one that instantly elevated the Gaels to MAAC title contenders.
The 6-foot-7 Glover, a junior, is a New York City playground legend. He has become the top Player of the Year candidate in the MAAC.
"Even without him they're one of the most talented teams in the league, and now I think to say runaway candidate for MVP is too strong a word, but Glover right now, he gets my MVP vote," Niagara coach Joe Mihalich said.
Glover's averaging 20.7 points, which ranks 18th in the country. He's 12th nationwide at 10.4 rebounds a game and fourth in field-goal percentage at 65.9. Canisius (8-9, 2-5) and Niagara (4-15, 1-6) know all about him. He ravaged the Griffs for 39 points and 14 rebounds on Dec. 3 and singed Niagara for 30 and 11 two days later. Machado, the Gaels' point guard, is sure glad to have him. He leads the county in assists at 8.4 per game.
"It was one of those games where everything he did was right," Canisius coach Tom Parrotta said. "We kind of worried about the three-point shooters and before you know it he carried them. But that was early December. I'd like to think we're playing much, much better now."
The task of containing Glover in particular has grown more difficult for Niagara. Junior low-post player Kashief Edwards sat out last weekend's losses to Saint Peter's and Manhattan and has undergone arthroscopic surgery that's expected to sideline him for at least another week. Subtracting Edwards from a small lineup that's already been challenged on the boards -- and a cast that's missing injured standout freshman Antoine Mason -- has turned this rebuilding year into a challenge far beyond what Mihalich anticipated.
Needham, Fairfield's 6-foot sophomore point guard, surges with electricity. He averages 13.8 points, 5.1 assists and is coming off a season-high 27-point effort against Rider. He averaged almost 19 against both Canisius and Niagara last year, with Fairfield beating both in the MAAC Tournament.
"Needham is responsible, whether he's scoring or not, for a lot of their offense," Parrotta said. "He's just one of those kids who makes big plays."
In women's action, both Niagara and Canisius hit the road for MAAC clashes tonight. NU (1-16, 0-6) looks to end an 11-game losing streak when it faces Saint Peter's at 6. Canisius (6-11, 2-4), fresh off Sunday's win which knocked Siena out of first place, meets Fairfield at 7.