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Canisius, Niagara hit the road for MAAC basketball tournament

Canisius men’s basketball coach Reggie Witherspoon leans upon a familiar adage when discussing his team’s good fortunes on the road this season.

“Our guys have bonded together, and I think it was Isaiah Thomas who said, ‘Championships are won on the bus,’ ” Witherspoon said. “We’ve spent a lot of time on the bus, and I hope that’s pulling us together.”

The Golden Griffins will try to continue those winning ways as they prepare for the postseason. The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference men’s and women’s basketball tournaments open Thursday at Times Union Center in Albany.

In the men's tournament, Canisius (14-16), the No. 2 seed, earned a bye into the tournament quarterfinals and will open play at 9:30 p.m. Friday against the winner of the game Thursday between No. 7 Manhattan and No. 10 Fairfield. Niagara (13-18), the No. 11 seed, opens at 9 p.m. Thursday against No. 6 Monmouth.

In the women’s tournament, No. 5 Canisius (11-18) plays at 2:30 p.m. Saturday against No. 4 Monmouth, and No. 8 Niagara (12-18) opens at 9:30 a.m. Thursday against No. 9 Fairfield. The winner of the Niagara-Fairfield game will face No. 1 Quinnipiac on Friday, and the winner of the Canisius-Monmouth game will face either Niagara, Fairfield or Quinnipiac in a MAAC semifinal on Sunday.

The MAAC tournament champions receive automatic bids into the NCAA Tournament. The 68-team men's field will be announced March 17, and the tournament begins March 19 with the First Four in Dayton, Ohio. The women's field will be announced March 18. The tournament will begin March 22.

The Canisius men are 9-5 on the road this season, including a 70-66 win against Siena at the Times Union Center on Jan. 5. For the MAAC Tournament, however, the Times Union Center is considered a neutral court, and the Griffs are 0-3 in neutral-court games.

Canisius announced Feb. 1 that junior guard Isaiah Reese was suspended indefinitely due to conduct detrimental to the team. The Griffs are 6-4 with three wins away from the Koessler Athletic Center since the start of February.

“We would have loved to play better at home, but the conference tournament isn’t in our gym, and if there is a perspective that can be good for us, it’s that we’re better away from home,” Witherspoon said.

The Griffs face uncertainty as they prepare to face Manhattan, which defeated Canisius 70-65 on Feb. 17 at Koessler Athletic Center, or Fairfield, which lost to the Griffs twice in the regular season.

“There’s that, but you also get a little bit of rest,” Witherspoon said of preparing for two opponents. “But you’re also going to play against an opponent who has played in that building before, so there’s a couple different sides to that, but I think that you get this far in the season and the things you do well, you hope to do them well or do them better, and the things you struggle with, you hope you’ve improved and you don’t get taken advantage of, by any opponent.

“We’ve played so many games on a one-day prep that I’m not certain this is that much different.”

The Niagara men dropped to the lowest seed in the MAAC Tournament after losing to Siena on Sunday, combined with Saint Peter's win against Fairfield. Niagara finished tied with Saint Peter’s and Fairfield for last place in the MAAC with 6-12 records. Niagara went 1-3 combined against Saint Peter’s and Fairfield this season, dropping the Purple Eagles to 11th in the conference after a tiebreaker.

A 2-7 record in February didn’t help Niagara, which has not advanced past the MAAC Tournament quarterfinals in the six years Chris Casey has been coach.

“We have some good senior leadership in the front court,” Casey said, singling out Marvin Prochet, Dominic Robb and Greg King. “We’ll lean on those guys heavily, as you need to, because they’ve been through this and they know what has to happen to give yourself a chance to win.”

The Purple Eagles’ finish to the regular season was a far cry from a promising start. While basketball analytics site ranks Niagara’s nonconference strength of schedule as No. 338 in the country (Canisius is ranked No. 82), the Purple Eagles opened the season with wins against Pittsburgh and St. Bonaventure, but limped through their conference schedule.

Niagara underachieved despite having four seniors in the lineup, including Prochet, a second-team all-MAAC selection and a forward who averages 15.9 points and 7.2 rebounds a game, and Robb, a forward who holds Niagara’s school record for blocked shots (221).

“We struggled during the conference to completely find ourselves,” said Casey, whose team defeated Monmouth 75-48 on Jan. 26 in Lewiston. “We found ourselves for moments but not for sustained periods. We’re going to work to have two good practices (before the tournament) and go up to Albany, ready to play.”

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