If Joe Mihalich had a ballot for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference men’s basketball coach of the year, there’s no question to whom he’d give the top vote.
Or the honor, for that matter.
“Greg Paulus should be the MAAC coach of the year,” Mihalich told the News this week. “What he’s done at Niagara is amazing. It’s a hard job, I know. I did it for 15 years, but what he’s done is incredible.”
Mihalich would know. He was named the MAAC coach of the year three times during his tenure at Niagara from 1998 to 2013.
Mihalich now coaches the Hofstra men’s basketball team but still has a strong connection to the region. He remains a die-hard Buffalo Bills fan, and lately, he’s been in touch with Paulus, who is a little more than four months into his tenure as the Purple Eagles’ head coach.
The Purple Eagles (11-19, 9-10 MAAC) conclude the regular season at 7 p.m. Friday at Canisius (11-19, 6-13), the second half of the Battle of the Bridge series in men’s basketball.
Paulus took over the Purple Eagles in October after Patrick Beilein resigned due to personal reasons less than seven months into the job. The Purple Eagles opened the season 2-9, but went 9-3 in games at the Gallagher Center. At the start of this, the final week of the regular season, Niagara scooted into a tie for fifth in the MAAC with Iona, which has won the last four MAAC Tournament championships.
The Purple Eagles are now tied with Iona in sixth in the MAAC, entering the final day of the regular season. Both are a half-game behind Quinnipiac (10-10), which ended the regular season Wednesday. Iona ends the regular season Friday at Saint Peter’s.
Niagara needs to beat Canisius to finish fifth and earn a first-round bye in the MAAC Tournament.
The Purple Eagles hold the tiebreaker with Iona by virtue of winning both games against the Gaels, including a 100-91 overtime win Sunday in Lewiston. Niagara also owns the tiebreaker with Quinnipiac because of wins against first-place Siena and Saint Peter’s, which both swept Quinnipiac this season.
A loss could drop the Purple Eagles as low as the eighth seed, depending on the outcome of three conference games Friday. Canisius, meanwhile, is locked into 10th after its win Wednesday at Marist.
The MAAC will announce its men’s basketball awards next week, and the conference tournament begins Tuesday in Atlantic City, N.J. Tradition dictates that Paulus has long odds to become coach of the year. The honor has almost always gone to the coach of either the first- or second-place team in the 39-year history of MAAC men’s basketball. Also, Niagara went 2-16 in road games this season, including a loss Wednesday to Siena at the Times Union Center in Albany, where the Saints are undefeated this season.
But given that Niagara was last in the 11-team league in 2018-19, and was voted to finish 10th in the preseason polls, the Purple Eagles' turnaround is remarkable.
“He kept the team together and kept their morale up,” said Mihalich, whose team won the regular-season title in the Colonial Athletic Association. “It’s hard to do that and here they are, they’re .500 in the league. It’s a crazy year for the MAAC, and it’s a wide-open situation. He’s made some noise and he’s beaten some good teams.”
The MAAC is No. 25 of 32 conferences in the Sagarin Ratings and No. 21 on KenPom.com, and is all but certain to be a one-bid league for the NCAA Tournament. But the Purple Eagles notched two of their biggest wins this season against Siena (72-71, Jan. 19) and Saint Peter’s (63-54, Feb. 27), teams that have vied for first place in the MAAC.
“He wasn’t expected to win,” Mihalich said. “He’s not supposed to beat Iona twice. Or Saint Peter’s. He’s winning with a team that’s not as big and not as talented. To put it in vague terms, he’s overachieving. Greg is doing things that, maybe, nobody else could have done.”