Niagara, and to a lesser extent Canisius, have fallen far from preseason expectations. Their disappointing seasons will collide in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament in a bit of fortunate seeding. One team is guaranteed of easing its struggles.
The longtime men's basketball rivals meet for the third time this season in the league tournament's first round at 9:30 p.m. Friday in the MassMutual Center.
Meanwhile, the eighth-seeded Canisius women's team (12-17) plays No. 9 Saint Peter's (4-25) at 2 p.m. today, and fifth-seeded Niagara (12-18) will meet No. 4 Loyola (13-16) in a quarterfinal matchup at 3:30 p.m. Friday.
The winner of Canisius-Saint Peter's will take on top-seeded Marist (22-7) at 1:30 p.m. Friday. The Red Foxes' dominance in the tournament since 2004 under Brian Giorgis is unprecedented. Marist seeks its seventh consecutive conference tournament championship and eighth since '04. Giorgis is 7-1 in title games, with his lone loss coming to the Golden Griffins in 2005.
The Canisius women lost five in a row to end the regular season; Niagara has won seven of its last 12.
The last time the Niagara and Canisius men met in the MAAC Tournament was March 3, 2002, in the semifinals, which the Purple Eagles won, 70-60. This will be their sixth matchup in conference tournament play, with Canisius holding a 3-2 advantage.
If Canisius-Niagara III is anything like Canisius-Niagara II it should be quite a contest. Niagara won, 60-57, in overtime at the Gallagher Center on Feb. 15, fueled by two Antoine Mason free throws with 10.9 seconds left. Canisius had two chances to send the game into a second overtime but misfired on both attempts.
Neither team carries much momentum into the postseason. A trip to the quarterfinals, where the winner will play No. 2 seed Loyola, Md. (21-8), would help defibrillate a lost season. The No. 10 seed Golden Griffins (5-24) have lost 12 of their last 13 with their lone victory coming against lowly Maryland-Baltimore County at home in a BracketBuster game. Tom Parrotta's job security is tenuous at best but the Golden Griffins level of intensity increases each time they play their rivals.
"It's kind of interesting it fell this way, and I was thinking about it as we went into the last week of the season," Parrotta said. "It's a game that obviously has a lot of different subplots to it. We have the utmost respect for Niagara and we did lose a close game up there and from our perspective we had chances to win that game but we didn't make the plays down the stretch to get the victory."
The biggest obstacle has been the inconsistent play of its core players and a lack of the precision needed to win. Starting guards Harold Washington, a second-team All-MAAC selection, Alshwan Hymes and Gaby Belardo have combined for more turnovers (242) than assists (193).
Niagara coach Joe Mihalich concedes he's disappointed in the way his young team is playing although the seventh-seeded Purple Eagles' record the last six games isn't nearly as dire as their rivals'. Niagara (13-18) is 4-2 with victories over Siena, Rider and the OT win over Canisius.
"You love it and you hate it, it's a great rivalry, it's a great game," Mihalich said. "You love to play that game and you hate it because you can throw the records out of the window. Nothing matters except this game for both schools. It should be a lot of fun."
Mihalich would be more jovial, however, if his group was filled with juniors and seniors instead of freshmen and sophomores. There's no questioning the talent on the roster starting with freshman Juan'ya Green (17.5 ppg.) and Mason (15.4 ppg.), a redshirt freshman, who were both named to the league's All-Freshman Team. Green, the nation's second-leading freshman scorer behind Central Connecticut's Kyle Vinales, is the favorite to be named the league's Freshman of the Year, which will be awarded tonight.
The Purple Eagles, the nation's third-youngest team according to kenpom.com, start four freshmen. Sophomore Marvin Jordan is the sixth man. Yes, Niagara's future is promising because of its youth but at times the players act as if they'd much rather watch a Phineas and Ferb marathon than scrutinize scouting reports from Mihalich. In their BracketBuster game at Vermont, he informed the players how difficult the Catamounts were to beat at home and how the sellout crowd was going to be loud. In one ear and out the other. Niagara lost by 22.
"You tell them all these things and they're like, 'Yeah, yeah, right Vermont,' " Mihalich said. "That's where our frustration lies. These guys need to get back focused a little bit and take advantage of this great opportunity."