Here's another in the series looking back and ahead at MAAC programs.
Up now ...
2011-12 RECORD: 9-9 in MAAC play, 13-19 overall.
2011-12 RECAP: Considerable improvement, not only overall (the Purple Eagles were 0-18 and 1-29 in the previous year), but as the season progressed (5-3 in their last eight games). It certainly helped that the team filled its two major gaping holes from the previous year, at point guard and center, and with sophomores which bodes well for the next two years. Kayla Stroman, a 5-foot-5 PG who only played eight games in 2010-11 before being lost for the rest of the season, was a do-everything performer. And, 6-2 Lauren Gatto, who sat out last season after transferring into the program, was a good-enough force inside. There were also nice contributions from a four-member freshman class. It resulted in the team finishing in a tie for fourth place in the regular-season standings and, then, advancing to the post-season conference tournament's semifinal round, where it lost in overtime to Marist.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: The return of Stroman, the eligibility of Gatto, some progress by a couple of returning players and the contributions of the freshmen. There were a lot of divergent parts coming together (including head coach Kendra Faustin, who wasn't around as much in preseason due to having a baby in early November). But, when things started coming together, things started working better. Stroman not only provided offense on her own (a team-best 10.8 points per game), but her 2.5 steals' average was second-best in the MAAC. Gatto scored at a 10.3 ppg. rate, and was at her best late, particularly in the MAAC tournament against Marist when she turned in a 19-point, 10-rebound effort. Meghan McGuinness became a nice third option by midseason (6.8 ppg.), hitting 53-of-115 from three-point range. Her 46.1 bonus-land percentage would have been the best nationally had she made enough treys to qualify for the national leaderboard. Sophomore Shy Britton, a 5-11 sophomore (5.9, 3.8) was a nice role player, and seniors Ali Morris (5.8, 3.8) and Meghan Waterman (2.3, 1.7) provided the requisite leadership skills. Another sophomore, 5-10 Chanel Johnson, added some athleticism to the starting lineup late in the season and the team went 8-6 with her in the starting five. Val McQuade (4.8, 3.6), a 5-10 freshman who made 20-of-48 treys, added to the team's long-range shooting ability. As a team Niagara's 35.7 percent accuracy from beyond the stripe was 16th-best nationally.
WHAT WENT WRONG: Probably a little too much youth, and all the adjustment to having five players in the nine-member playing group who saw just eight games of action a year ago (all by Stroman). It took some time for the pieces to come together, but they eventually did. Still ... Niagara would have been even better had it been able to take care of the ball. Its 18.4 turnovers per game was the worst average in the conference. The team also had to get by without the requisite "star." No team member was in the top 15 in the conference in scoring, or the top 12 in rebounding. And, despite Gatto's presence in the middle, rebounding remained a problem The team got outrebounded by 2.6 per game (only two MAAC teams had greater rebounding deficiencies), and Gatto (5.7 rebounds per game) probably needs to do more in that category. The offensive certainly has to be more productive (the 55.6 points-per-game average was ranked 286th of 345 Division I programs nationally). And, despite all the late-season optimism, remember that the team failed to finish over .500 in the league and was 13-19 overall. One MAAC program, Siena, fired its head coach despite having the same league mark and a better overall record than the Purple Eagles.
WHAT'S AHEAD: Certainly a little better, considering the only departing seniors were the team's fifth- and eighth-leading scorers. Team chemistry should be improved, picking up from the late-season successes. There will also be much optimism, particularly since the team's only two losses in its last five games were both to perennial power Marist ... one in double overtime and the MAAC tournament semifinal-round contest in OT. Niagara's athleticism caused Marist problems in both those meetings and league followers looking for someone to (finally) disrupt Marist's long-time league domination can grasp at those two overtime-game straws and say, "just maybe ..." But, there will be much optimism around the program as the starting lineup will likely include four juniors and a sophomore, which not only bodes well for the coming season but the year beyond that, too. And, then, there might even be some front-court help in the form of 6-1 freshman Gaby Baldasere, who played limited minutes but did get 16 rebounds in 66 minutes of court time.
PREDICTION FOR 2012-13: Hard to envision Niagara overtaking Marist, which will be very good again in the coming season. Otherwise ... all the other teams that finished in the top seven in this year's standings had significant losses of key starters. Niagara's graduation losses were role players. The early pick here is that the Purple Eagles will finish second or third next season and, with a little improvement, be a legitimate challenger to Marist.