Canisius College gets an early chance to establish itself as a legitimate threat in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference on Thursday when it plays host to two-time defending league champion Manhattan.
The Golden Griffins were picked to finish sixth in the 11-team league but have shown signs of being better than that.
Canisius opened MAAC play a month ago with an upset of Monmouth, currently the highest-rated team in the conference.
Was it an aberration? The Griffs (7-7, 2-2) have the highest-scoring offense in the MAAC ... and the bottom-rated defense. The game against Manhattan at 7 p.m. (ESPN3) at the Koessler Athletic Center will offer more evidence.
“A lot of teams have veterans coming back who have been through it,” said Canisius coach Jim Baron. “Us, we’re building for the future. We’re trying to take steps to gain experience, build continuity, and gain confidence. It’s on-the-job training with the newcomers we have.”
Meanwhile, Niagara plays Saint Peter’s at 7 p.m. Thursday (Time Warner Sports) at the Taps Gallagher Center. The matchups switch on Saturday. Saint Peter’s is at Canisius at 2 p.m., and Manhattan is at Niagara at 3 p.m.
Like Canisius, Manhattan (5-8, 2-2) is a bit of a mystery. The Jaspers, picked for third in the MAAC preseason poll, lost seven of their first eight games, including a 35-point drubbing at Siena. But Manhattan has won four of the last five, including a triple-overtime, revenge win over Siena.
Manhattan is bidding to become the first three-peat MAAC champ since La Salle in 1990.
The Jaspers lost their top two scorers from last season but plenty of talent remains. Senior Shane Richards, a 6-foot-5 wing, ranks fourth in the MAAC in scoring at 17.8 ppg. Senior guard RaShawn Stores led the MAAC in assist-to-turnover ratio last season, and 6-5 wing Rich Williams averages 16.6 ppg.
Manhattan likes to play a matchup zone and press. The Jaspers have made too many turnovers this season and haven’t rebounded well.
“I see a team that’s got a lot of continuity,” Baron said. “They have two senior guards who are very, very good. They have Williams, who’s as good as any wing player in the league. And they have the confidence of going to the postseason.”
Canisius is averaging 84.9 ppg and leading the MAAC in three-pointers per game (10.1). The Griffs are allowing 82.4 ppg and allowing foes to shoot 48.4 percent from the field, which also is worst in the MAAC.
Asked what aspect of his defense needs to improve, Baron said: “Everything; all the fundamentals.”
He especially would like to see his team make it tougher for opponents to penetrate the lane.
“I’m watching the game last night, and Marquette beat Providence because they drove the ball on them and got fouled,” Baron said. “You gotta guard against penetration, whether it’s in transition or in half-court man to man. A lot of teams in this league have very good guards.”
Niagara (3-12, 1-3) faces a difficult offensive challenge against Saint Peter’s (5-7, 3-0). The Peacocks led the MAAC in scoring defense last year and are No. 2 this year, holding foes to 69.1 ppg. The Peacocks also are a very good defensive rebounding team, grabbing a MAAC-best 77 percent of defensive boards.
Niagara ranks 10th in the MAAC in field-goal percentage (.407). If the Purple Eagles don’t move the ball on offense and use good shot selection, points could be tough to come by.