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Renewal of Canisius-Niagara rivalry offers a contrast in styles

Strength meets strength and weakness meets weakness when Canisius visits Niagara on Friday night in the 177th men’s basketball game between the two teams.

Canisius ranks second in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in scoring, while Niagara has allowed the second fewest points. Conversely, the Canisius defense has struggled this season, while Niagara has the lowest-scoring offense in the league.

“The biggest thing that stands out to me is they have a number of guys who can really score the ball,” said Niagara coach Chris Casey. “They’re very good offensively. We’re going to have to be good defensively in taking some of that away. They’re very good with ball screens. They throw the ball inside. They score in transition. They can shoot the ball.”

“We don’t score the ball as well as last year, so we have to rely more on our defense,” said Niagara guard Matt Scott.

Can Canisius be a true threat to the top half of the MAAC, as it seemed at times early this season? Can Niagara rise to the middle of the MAAC pack? The game at the Taps Gallagher Center (7 p.m., ESPNU, Radio 1230 and 1400 AM) will help sort out those questions.

Canisius, picked for sixth in the 11-team MAAC, stands 9-10 overall and 4-4 in conference. Niagara, picked for last, is 5-14 and 3-5.

Canisius hopes its defense turned a corner last weekend. The Griffs, allowing 79.6 ppg, won road games at Manhattan (65-62) and Quinnipiac (63-53). The Griffs gave up 94 and 78 points, respectively, to those two teams earlier in the year.

“It was all about intensity,” said Canisius senior Malcolm McMillan. “The first two games we had played those teams, the intensity wasn’t there. The second time around, you could see it on the film. Everybody’s knees were bent. Everybody was active on the help side. We were communicating a lot better. That was the biggest difference, enthusiasm and communication.”

“We needed those wins,” said Canisius forward Phil Valenti. “We needed to stay in the mix in the league. … We communicated a lot better with each other. We focused on their concepts in practice.”

A capsule update on the two teams:

Canisius: The Griffs are averaging 80.2 ppg. They have four players averaging in double figures: McMillan (16.0), Valenti (14.9), Kassius Robertson (13.7) and Jermaine Crumpton (12.8). The Griffs lead the MAAC in three-point attempts (27.2 a game), and they’re second in the MAAC in getting to the free-throw line. They take care of the ball, too, averaging a league-best 11.9 turnovers a game.

Perimeter defense has been the biggest issue. The Griffs aren’t as physical inside, either, without graduated center Josiah Heath. Opponents are averaging 75.9 ppg against the Griffs and shooting 46 percent (10th in conference). But after last weekend’s clamp-down performances, maybe the Griffs have found some defensive answers.

Niagara: The Purple Eagles are allowing 69.8 ppg overall. Their guards and wings play hard and attack the basket. Niagara ranks fourth in the MAAC in offensive rebounding, which helps a little in making up for off-target shooting. The Eagles are 10th in field-goal percentage (.411) and 10th in three-pointers per game. Fortunately, they don’t jack up a lot of threes.

Their offense plays at the slowest tempo in the MAAC. The Eagles get by on grit. Point guards Cam Fowler and Chris Barton, and off-guards Emile Blackman and Matt Scott, all do a good job defending the perimeter.

Scott, the 6-4 sophomore from Brooklyn, is having a breakout season. He’s the only player in the MAAC who is leading his team in points (14.8), rebounds (6.8), steals (1.5) and total assists (51). Blackman is the only other Eagle scoring in double figures (14.6 ppg). Justin Satchell, a 6-8 junior, has shown flashes of being a difference-maker. In his nine best games, he’s averaging 14 ppg. Fowler missed last week’s games due to a death in the family. He’s back and has been steady in winning the starting point-guard job. Overall, however, Niagara makes too many turnovers (15.2 a game).

“We want to play faster, but I think turnovers have hurt us this year,” Casey said. “I don’t know what kind of game it’s going to be, but I know I want us to defend, rebound and handle the ball well.”