Another installment in a series looking at the chances of teams in the upcoming men's MAAC tournament.
Up now, Niagara
No. 6 NIAGARA (9-9 in MAAC play, 17-14 overall)
SEASON ANALYSIS: It had four returning starters for this season, but the loss was a big one in a literal sense, 6-9 Benson Egemoyne. Between the absence of a true post player and some nagging injuries to its two top players, forward Bilal Benn and guard Tyrone Lewis, who each missed several games., things didn't go as expected here. The team's record might be disappointing to program followers ... better things were expected ... but the injuries set things back for a good portion of the season.
Things seemed to be coming together at the end of the season when Niagara went on a 6-1 run that included an impressive 87-74 victory over Siena on Feb. 12, the only blemish on the Saints' league record this season. And, then, Niagara went on the road the last weekend of the season and barely edged Manhattan, 74-72, on Friday; and lsot at Fairfield, 80-74, on Sunday.
WHY NIAGARA CAN WIN THE MAAC TOURNAMENT: If it needs to beat Siena at some point (they could meet in the championship game)... well, it's the only conference team that has done it this season, and it did so in impressive fashion. Still, the night it beat Siena was a perfect storm, of sorts. The game was nationally televised, drew a wildly enthusiastic capacity to the Taps Gallagher Center and gave the Purple Eagles an opportunity to make a statement by ending what was then a 15-game Siena winning streak. Niagara played with a level of intensity one wonders it can match for three straight tournament games. But, it could.
Benn and Lewis are explosive offensive players, each capable of taking over games. Point guard Anthony Nelson is a terrific and underrated floor general. There is still plenty of fire power in place. If all the talented pieces come together Niagara can give anyone problems. Just ask Siena.
WHY NIAGARA WON'T WIN THE MAAC TOURNAMENT: The lack of a true inside player will likely cause Niagara troubles against bigger teams (Siena) and, potentially, both Iona in the quarterfinals and, probably, Fairfield in the semifinals if both teams get there. The Purple Eagles, in fact, need to do something they haven't done yet this year just to get to the semifinals ... beat Iona. Also, Niagara also whipped Siena, 100-85, in a late regular-season game last year and, then, couldn't repeat that feat in the 2009 tournament's championship game. Siena, if anything, is better than a year ago and Niagara isn't as good.
PREDICTION: Niagara finds a way to beat Iona in the quarterfinals, but can't get past Fairfield in the semifinal round.
WHATS NEXT: Benn, Lewis, guard Rob Garrison and forward Demetrius Williamson, all significant contributors, are all gone after this season. It will be a new era with a new cast for Niagara next season. But, don't count on a big dropoff. Joe Mihalich is one of the conference's better coaches and has only had one sub-.500 record in 12 seasons at the school.