ALBANY – The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament is a cherry-on-top opportunity for both the Canisius College and Niagara University men’s basketball teams.
Canisius far exceeded expectations by finishing fifth and earning a first-round bye in the 11-team event. The Griffs were picked for 10th. Niagara slightly exceeded expectations by placing ninth but finishing strong with four straight victories. The Purple Eagles were picked for last.
Both teams get a chance for a feel-good cap to the season. One or two wins would amount to a good showing. A run to the title on Monday night and an NCAA Tournament berth for either is hard to fathom.
Niagara plays a first-round game against Siena at 5 p.m. Thursday. Canisius plays a quarterfinal game against Monmouth at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
“Coming in fifth was terrific,” said Canisius coach Jim Baron. “We were picked 10th. Winning 16 games overall and 11 league games. That’s significant, especially with what we’ve graduated the last two years. So they have responded to the challenge.”
Canisius knows it’s the underdog against a Monmouth team it lost to twice this season.
“That’s the way it’s been all year,” said Griffs senior center Josiah Heath.
Both the Griffs and Niagara have fed upon their roles as underdogs.
How often has Baron reminded his team it was picked 10th?
“Every day,” smiled Griffs sophomore guard Zach Lewis. “He tells us that every day. It keeps us hungry on some of the days we’re all banged up. We’re tired, and he reminds us, ‘You know, they picked us 10th.’ So we all look at each other. We’re all hungry. We rally together.”
Meanwhile, the Canisius and Niagara women also are colossal long shots to win the tournament but in a position where a win or two would be nice. Canisius plays Monmouth at 9:30 a.m. Thursday in a pre-quarterfinal. Niagara meets Manhattan at 1:30 p.m. Thursday.
A breakdown of the games:
The Purple Eagles (8-21) lost twice to No. 8 seed Siena, by 10 and by four points. This should be an offensive game. Siena ranks third in conference in scoring, Niagara is fifth. Siena ranks 11th in scoring defense. Niagara is 10th.
Niagara probably needs to take advantage of its ability to crash the boards with its athletic wing players. Niagara grabbed 33.5 percent of offensive rebounds, fourth best in the league. Siena was the worst defensive rebounding team in the MAAC.
“I thought our chemistry improved,” said Niagara coach Chris Casey. “So our young guys started to come together a little bit. We were 2-8 in the first 10 and 5-5 in the second 10, with a chance to win a couple others in the second 10.”
Niagara has the disadvantage of playing in front of Siena’s home crowd.
“Our road record has been better than our home record in the conference,” said Casey, whose team went 5-5 on the road. “Do I think they’re mature enough? Yes.”
The Griffs lost to Monmouth by five and four points. Monmouth has more experience and has the best player, first-team all-MAAC guard Justin Robinson, who averaged 15.8 points and 3.9 assists in conference.
It’s an interesting matchup. Monmouth has not seen the current Griffs team since it had a chemistry re-boot in the wake of injuries to forwards Phil Valenti and Jermaine Crumpton. Monmouth has good size, but its big men are not as productive as the Griffs’ twin starting centers, Heath and Kevin Bleeker. Both of them are good at catching and passing, which has caused defenses fits. Monmouth, however, has some length on the wing and at forward. Canisius doesn’t have any healthy forwards, just guards and centers.
“I think they’ve got good size,” Baron said. “They’ve got real good quickness. Their point guard is picked first team all-league. He’s a very very, good player. … They can really score the ball. They’re very physical and very aggressive inside.”
The Griffs (10-19) were picked for eighth and finished eighth. They won both meetings with ninth-seeded Monmouth, by 13 and 17 points. Canisius is led by second-team all-MAAC guard Kayla Hoohuli, who averaged 13.1 points a game. The Griffs ranked third in field-goal percentage and first in three-point percentage. The winner of this game must face top-seeded Quinnipiac, which is 28-3 and is ranked 31st in RPI.
The Purple Eagles (13-16) were picked for fifth and finished sixth. Niagara should beat lowly Manhattan (3-26), which ranks at the bottom of nearly every statistical category. A win would send Niagara to a Friday meeting with third-seeded Fairfield (14-15). Niagara beat Fairfield twice. Niagara has two second-team all-MAAC players in senior Meghan McGuinness (12.6 ppg) and sophomore Victoria Rampado (12.9 ppg).