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Four players leave Niagara U’s basketball program

Niagara University’s men’s basketball roster is in upheaval – again.

Four players – including star guard Emile Blackman – have been granted their release to transfer to other schools, Niagara confirmed on Friday.

Blackman averaged a team-high 15.8 points a game and was the emotional leader of the team. The other two granted permission to contact other schools Friday were junior starting point guard Cameron Fowler and junior reserve forward Justin Satchell. Last week, sophomore Karonn Davis, the backup point guard, revealed he plans to transfer.

Blackman and Fowler both will graduate in May, so they will not have to sit out a year when they go to another school.

Niagara’s roster has been a revolving door since coach Chris Casey took over for Joe Mihalich in the spring of 2013. Niagara has seen 20 players leave the program early over those three seasons, counting the three on Friday. Twelve of them have been recruited by Casey.

“I have no real reaction,” Casey said of the latest transfers. “It’s a national occurrence. It’s what goes on. So if that’s what they’re choosing to do, I certainly wish them well. We’ll concentrate on the guys that are in the program, work with them, and move forward.”

A year ago, Niagara lost seven players to transfer and saw an eighth, Dominique Reid, kicked off the team for legal troubles.

The latest departures will leave Niagara with eight returning players, six who saw action this year and two relatively highly touted players who sat out after transferring into the program.

Niagara was 7-25 this season and 10th out of 11 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. It was 8-22 last year and 7-26 in 2013-14.

Asked what he would say to Niagara fans troubled by the upheaval, Casey said:

“I say it’s something we have to get a handle on and we’re working toward. I think we’ve made a little bit of inroads on it this year with eight core guys returning, and we just keep moving forward. We want players that respect Niagara and want to be at Niagara, feel an affinity for Niagara and want to be a part of making the program grow and get back to winning. Those are the guys we’ll concentrate on.”

The departure of the 6-foot-4 Blackman is a particular blow because he was recruited by Casey to Division II Long Island University Post in 2012. Casey brought Blackman to Niagara upon his hiring in 2013. Blackman scored 913 points the past two years and ranked ninth in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in scoring this season. His competitive fire and energy made him a fan favorite.

“I feel like to prepare me for where I want to be professionally, if I play in a different conference, I think it will be the best thing for me,” Blackman said. “I want to see better competition every night instead of playing in the MAAC where some nights you aren’t playing a team that’s as good as other teams.”

Blackman said Niagara’s losing seasons were not a factor.

“We didn’t finish as well as I would have liked this year, but that really doesn’t have much to do with the decision,” he said. “I think it’s really just about competition.”

“I’m going to go to school and try to get my graduate degree, that’s a priority. But going to a school that has a higher level of exposure, if you have more scouts going to see other teams and other players, and if I’m playing, they might notice me as well. I feel like I belong at a higher level. I think I can go and compete at a higher level.”

Casey said he was not shocked by Blackman’s decision.

“No, I’m not,” he said. “Like I said it’s a national occurrence. You see it all over. Would I like to have him? Obviously I would, and so would anybody else. But I’m not surprised by any transfers. Ohio State just lost three guys. Robert Morris lost three guys. There’s guys leaving everywhere.”

“That conversation we had was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Blackman said of telling Casey he was leaving. “I love coach Casey to death. Me leaving Niagara doesn’t have much to do with him. I just feel like it’s a decision my family and I made to put me in a better position for my future. I think he understands that. It hurts. It hurts both of us. But it’s something I needed to do.

“I’m completely thankful for everything coach Casey has done for me,” Blackman added. “He’s the only coach who offered me anything coming out of high school. Now I’m getting a degree because of him and I’ve gotten to play on a Division I platform and now I’ve got a chance to get a graduate degree and still play basketball, and it’s mainly because of him.”

Can Casey survive?

Niagara just gave Casey a contract extension in September that runs three more years, through the 2018-19 season. Niagara has the second-smallest athletics budget in the 11-team MAAC, according to federal documents, and is not in the habit of buying out coaches’ contracts. Casey has had the strong support of Niagara’s president, the Rev. James J. Maher, who hired him.

Because of the turnover, Casey has been caught in a cycle of scrambling for signees late in the recruiting process who then either don’t fit or can’t contribute.

Niagara currently has three starters returning (Matt Scott, Dominic Robb and Marvin Prochet). Sitting out this year were heralded guard Khalil Dukes, who transferred from Southern California, and 6-5 wing Kevin Larkin, a transfer who led all of Division II freshmen in scoring at Cheyney University two years ago.

“They’ve had a good year of practice,” Casey said. “They’ve used a sit-out year well and used it to their advantage. They’ve done well in practice, so I expect them to play a big role next year.”

Niagara also received a verbal commitment Friday from James Towns, a 6-4 guard from Detroit.

Niagara will need to find a point guard, a position at which it ranked near the bottom of the MAAC last season. Fowler averaged 23 minutes and 3.4 points. Davis averaged 20.5 minutes and 4.3 points. Davis was supposed to be the starter. But he was suspended for four games early in the season for violating team rules and lost his spot to Fowler.

The 6-8 Satchell was a junior college transfer who had an up-and-down year. He started the first 11 games but had stretches in which he was stuck on the bench. He averaged 19 minutes and 6.7 points. The coaches wanted him to be more of an inside presence, but he at times seemed most comfortable on the perimeter.

Blackman said he thinks the locker room was united despite the turnover.

“I think we’ve always had good chemistry,” he said. “I don’t think it was anything within the team. I always thought it was guys dealing with their own separate issues, whether it be with the coaches or with playing time or something else. That didn’t have anything to do with my decision. The last two years have been two of the closest teams I’ve been on in my life. I loved playing with these guys, even though the record wasn’t what we wanted it to be.”