Neither Gaby Belardo of Canisius nor Marvin Jordan of Niagara has had direct participation in Western New York's most intense college basketball rivalry. Belardo, a transfer from South Florida, watched last year's meetings from the sidelines while waiting for his eligibility to be restored. Jordan was still playing high school ball in Peoria, Ill.
The two will experience Canisius versus Niagara firsthand for the first time in the Koessler Center tonight (7 p.m., ESPNU, fewer than 250 tickets remain). But neither has to wait until tipoff to know that this game has a dynamic unlike any other Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference contest on their schedules.
"Everybody on campus is talking about it and the coaches are taking this game really, really, really serious," Belardo said. "I've been watching film with coaches since last week about Niagara. I watched the game from last year also, their game from last week against Fairfield."
"The way we've been practicing lately and the way coach and everybody else has been reacting to us playing Canisius, I pretty much know what type of game it's going to be," Jordan said. "Back home we have a lot of [high school] rivalry games, so I have a lot of experience playing against teams we don't agree with."
Niagara has owned the Griffs over the past seven years, winning 13 of 15. NU has won eight of the last 10 meetings at the Koessler Center.
Purple Eagles senior point guard Anthony Nelson has played some of his most efficient basketball against Canisius. He's averaged 13 points over the last four games, and he has 27 assists against just three turnovers in the last five.
These are different times. The Purple Eagles graduated their top four scorers from a year ago. Nelson is trying to orchestrate an offense awash in freshmen and sophomores. Niagara's 4-17 record (1-8 in the MAAC) demonstrates the difficulty of the task.
Canisius, with five seniors, is too experienced to take stock of Niagara's struggles and consider this a walkover. For one, the Griffs (9-10, 3-6) know these games evoke a pride and passion that's probably unequalled in any other regular-season game. What's more, the Griffs have been too inconsistent to take any team for granted.
"You can throw the records out because it's a rivalry game," said senior guard Robert Goldsberry. "They're a very dangerous team without anything with the rivalry, just a very dangerous team in the MAAC right now."
"We're in the same boat somewhat because we're not at all satisfied where we are," said Canisius coach Tom Parrotta. "We think we should be much further ahead [record-wise]. The good thing about that is I think we've been playing pretty good basketball of late and we've got to continue to do that and hopefully for our program we need to get to another couple levels as we come down the stretch in February and into March."
The Griffs received a psychological boost with Sunday's victory over Iona, which had been tied for the conference lead. Niagara's progress can't be measured in wins and losses. The Purple Eagles endured a stretch where defeats of fewer than 15 points qualified as an accomplishment. But they took both Iona and Fairfield (now the MAAC's sole leader) to the wire over the weekend.
"I definitely see we're getting better as a team and we're just going to come in and try to get this 'W,' " Nelson said. "All I know is it's going to be a war on Friday. We're going to bring it."
Niagara figures to be short-handed in the low post as junior forward Kashief Edwards continues to recover from arthroscopic knee surgery. Edwards underwent the procedure two weeks ago. He'll be in uniform but it's up in the air whether he'll play.
But Niagara has grown accustomed to such adversities. Standout freshman Antoine Mason has been out since the season's third game. Nelson missed some time, too. What it's all meant is freshmen and sophomores have received major minutes -- and the opportunity to improve.
"Everybody says we're young and things like that, but when you're here there's no time to think about you being a freshman," Jordan said. "We're in the fire so we have to play right away and we have to get better."
The doubleheader at the Koessler Center today begins with the Canisius women's team getting a chance to play on national television against one of the hottest teams in the MAAC. The Griffs (6-13, 2-6) face Manhattan (13-6, 5-3), which has won five of its last six games behind senior Abby Wentworth, the MAAC's scoring leader at 14.7 ppg.
Elsewhere, Niagara (1-18, 0-8) hosts Loyola (9-10, 6-2) at 7 p.m. at the Gallagher Center looking to snap a 13-game losing streak.