They were picked to finish ninth in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and with good reason. The Canisius College Golden Griffins were young and lacked experience.
On paper, they deserved to be picked ninth.
"I guarantee you no one in our locker room thought we were going to be ninth," senior Jermaine Crumpton said.
Indeed, the Griffs proved better than what they were picked on paper. They finished as co-regular season champs and will be the second seed when the MAAC men's basketball tournament opens in the Times Union Center in Albany on Thursday.
The 15 conference wins are the most ever for Canisius in the MAAC while their 21 regular-season wins ties the mark set by the 1993-94 team.
There are plenty of reasons why the Griffs have put together one of the best regular seasons in modern program history.
Let's start with the stats. Defensively, the Griffs are vastly improved from last year.
On Monday, they ranked 135th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 70.8 points per game. Last year at this time, the Griffs ranked 306th, allowing 78.6 points.
They are the third-best defensive team in the MAAC these days. That's bolstered by their assist-to-turnover margin, which stands at a league-best of plus-4.72. They lead the conference in assists per game at 17.8.
But stats are part of the paper game of basketball. And the Griffs didn't get to those stats without cultivating an important team characteristic – trust.
"I think playing good defense just comes with trusting each other and having each other's back," Canisius freshman Takal Molson said.
"The difference really from last year to this year is that defense is all about effort," said sophomore Isaiah Reese. "It's just one of those things where this group of guys just puts in that effort to play defense and with that, like Tak said, we trust each other. If somebody gets beat, we're there to help the next person. As a group, once when everybody can do that, that's what makes you the best team defensively in the league."
Trust. It's the buzzword on defense. It's a buzzword on offense. It gives players confidence to make aggressive plays and pass the ball. For the Griffs, the trust started with the coaching staff who consciously modeled the mentality and behavior they wanted their players to develop.
See, if the coaches want the players to value the gritty plays which often go unnoticed, they had to acknowledge that work, loudly and often, themselves.
"We use these two words a lot – 'each other.' We try to play for each other and try to have each other's back," Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon said. "We talk about that all the time.
"I think because these guys are talented enough at doing things, off the ball and sharing the ball, that it becomes fashionable on our team," Witherspoon said. "Everybody wants to make a play for somebody else. And it gets recognized and then it starts to grow. It starts to get infectious. You get a guy who takes a charge that hasn't taken a charge and everybody's excited for him. And then somebody else does it. And then somebody else does it.
"But you have to recognize it as coaches first. We talked about that before we started practicing in August. We've got to make sure we recognize it if we want our players to appreciate it. Everybody's going to recognized who scored a basket but we have to make sure we recognize and appreciate other things, other parts of the game."
The guys over at Niagara have learned a similar lesson the last few weeks, one about appreciating those players who aren't the headline stars. The Purple Eagles have been without their second-leading scorer Matt Scott for nearly two weeks. The senior played 11 minutes at Iona on Feb. 16 before injuring his ankle. The Purple Eagles lost their next two games before closing out the regular season with a solid 100-76 win over Marist.
Niagara coach Chris Casey said on Monday that Scott was scheduled to return to practice but remains day to day and is questionable for the Purple Eagle's MAAC tournament opener on Saturday.
Still, there are plenty of players who have stepped up, including sophomore James Towns. He dropped 31 on Canisius in Niagara's 105-89 win in the Koessler Center on Jan. 27. He has reached double figures in five of his last six games, increasing his scoring average to 9.3 to become a more consistent offensive threat.
"Any time you lose a guy like Matt there's a vacuum there and you need guys to step up," Casey said. "We've talked about it all year. Everybody needs to be ready because you don't know when you're going to be needed or how much you're going to be needed. I think there are a number of guys that have helped us out. James has done a good job putting points up, getting on the boards, and with the defensive assignments he's handled. He's done a very good job of that as has a number of other guys."
Among those other guys is the often overlooked junior forward Marvin Prochet. He did not make it on an all-MAAC team and Casey feels it's a bit of a snub.
While Kahlil Dukes and Scott get all the headlines, as they should pacing the best-scoring team in the conference, Prochet has been quietly making a difference. He leads the league in rebounding (7.8 per game). He has pulled down double-digit rebounds 10 times this season with eight double-doubles.
"I'm disappointed about it to be honest with you," Casey said about Prochet not earning a postseason honor. "There are a lot of really good things this young man did this year. People talk about Matt and Kahlil and they should, but I always throw Marvin's name in that. He's of vital importance. As far as my message to him, he's the kinda kid I don't have to give a message to. He'll look at it and I'm sure be disappointed he didn't make it, but flip it to a positive."
Canisius, the No. 2 seed, and Niagara, the No. 3, both earned byes into the quarterfinals but will open on different days. Canisius (21-10) will meet the winner of Thursday’s Siena-Quinnipiac game at 9:30 Friday night. Niagara plays the winner of Thursday’s Marist-Fairfield game at 7 Saturday night. If both advance the two rivals will square off in the semifinals at 9:30 p.m. Sunday. The championship game is at 7 p.m. Monday.