The Other 26: Niagara Rushes ForthPosted by IRenko on February 2nd, 2013
I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
When you hear the word “Niagara” you’re not likely to think of basketball. But in the shadow of one of the world’s natural wonders, something is percolating on the hardwood. After a thrilling 93-90 overtime win over Iona that included a rally from a late 15-point deficit and a buzzer-beating three-pointer to win the game, Niagara sits atop the MAAC standings at 10-1. A win over Loyola today would cap a tremendous week for the Purple Eagles, giving them a perfect 3-0 record against the next three teams in the standings — Iona, Loyola, and Canisius — over the past seven days.
Last year, Niagara finished 14-19, the first time in head coach Joe Mihalich’s 10-year tenure that he suffered consecutive losing seasons. Mihalich had taken the Purple Eagles to the NCAA Tournament in 2005 and 2007 and to the NIT in 2004 and 2009, but the team had fallen behind the pack in the MAAC in the three years since. The seeds of a resurgence were planted during last year’s losing campaign, as a host of young players started to find their footing in Division 1 college hoops. Having lost no one to graduation, Niagara was predicted to finish fifth in the MAAC in the preseason coaches’ poll. That seemed a fair, perhaps optimistic, assessment, but the clear light of hindsight makes a mockery of it.
What accounts for the turnaround? Mostly the maturation of Niagara’s all-sophomore backcourt: Juan’ya Green, Antoine Mason, and Ameen Tanksley. Last year, the trio showed that they had talent. This year, they’re showing that they can channel it into efficient offense. Green is actually averaging fewer points (16.5) than he did as a freshman (17.6), but that’s in part because he’s managed to corral his considerable talents and become a more effective facilitator. Coming out of high school, Green was known for his prodigious scoring ability, but questions lingered about his ability to create for his teammates. He’s answering those questions this year, increasing his assists (5.2 per game) and decreasing his turnovers (2.8 per game). With Green deferring more to his teammates, Mason, the son of former NBA player Anthony Mason, has stepped into the role of lead scorer. He’s upped his per-game average from 15.1 to a team-leading 18.7, but more importantly, he’s become a much more efficient scorer. He’s increased his field goal percentage from 38.2 to 44.6. He now shoots almost 80 percent from the free throw line, after shooting less than 65 percent last year, a significant development because of his knack for getting to the charity stripe. Tanksley, for his part, has also boosted his field goal percentage, from 38.6 to 45.7 and upped his scoring average into double-digits.
The result of the sophomore trio’s maturation on the offensive end is that the Purple Eagles have gone from scoring less than a point per possession in conference play to more than 1.1 points per possession. They closed 2012 with seven straight games in which they scored under a point per possession, but since the calendar flipped, they’ve exceeded a point per in seven out of nine games. Niagara’s improved efficiency and the leadership of Green, Mason, and Tanksley were on display Thursday night when the Purple Eagles, staring at a 74-59 deficit with 6:53 to play, rallied to send the game to overtime, where they won on Green’s three-pointer with a second to play. Green finished with 26 points, eight assists, and just one turnover. Mason led the team with 30 points, and though he struggled with his outside shot, he shot 12-of-17 on two-point FG attempts. Tanksley added 15 points (3-of-6 from three-point range) and 11 rebounds.
After Thursday night’s win, Mihalich said that the conference title race runs through Iona and Loyola because they made the Tournament last year. A win today would give Niagara a three-game sweep of those two teams and have the denizens Niagara Falls, New York contemplating a different kind of wonder — a league title and a run to the NCAA Tournament.
On to this week’s Top 10, our weekly Honor Roll, and the games to watch this week …
The Honor Roll is our weekly fixture highlighting the teams, players, and performances that impressed us in the past week.
- Muscala and Jones Beat the Buzzer — Two teams just outside our TO26 top ten had close calls this week, but emerged victorious when their leading big men found the basket in the final seconds. On Wednesday night, Bucknell trailed American by three points with 32 seconds left. American’s Tony Wroblicky missed the front end of a one-and-one, after which a Mike Muscala putback at the other end closed the lead to a point. And then history promptly repeated itself, as Daniel Munoz missed another front end, and Muscala put back his own miss to win the game at the buzzer and keep the Bison tied with Lehigh atop the Patriot League standings. Middle Tennessee, meanwhile, found itself in unchartered territory on Thursday night, trailing Florida International by 17 points at halftime. But the Blue Raiders rallied in the second half, and on an inbounds play with 0.9 seconds left in the game, Shawn Jones tipped in a lob from Bruce Massey to cap the comeback.
- Harvard Races Back Against Dartmouth — Because the Ivy League lacks a conference tournament, every regular season game, no matter how early or late, takes on outsized importance. So fans of preseason favorite Harvard were popping the Tums when the Crimson trailed lowly Dartmouth 57-47 points with 90 seconds remaining in just the second league game of the year. But Harvard staged a furious rally behind three Christian Webster three-pointers to tie the game at 62 as regulation ended. Dartmouth had little left for overtime after blowing a big upset, and Harvard cruised to an 82-77 win. In any other conference, you might circle February 16, when Harvard hosts Princeton, as the next “big game” on its schedule, but with so little margin for error in the Ivies, each of the four league games that precede it will be important in their own right.
- South Dakota State’s Five Game Winning Streak — Three weeks ago, Jackrabbits fans were lamenting the lackluster 2-2 conference start that left the preseason Summit League favorite two games behind undefeated North Dakota State and Western Illinois in the race for the league title. But the Jackrabbits have reeled off six straight wins, including a road win at Western Illinois and a home victory over North Dakota State last weekend. As a result, they’ve put themselves into a three-way tie for first place at 8-2. During this recent stretch, the Jackrabbits’ offense, led by star point guard Nate Wolters, has hummed along as potent as ever. But it’s been their improvement on the defensive end that has made the difference. In their two early conference losses, they gave up 1.13 and 1.15 points per possession, but in their last six games, they’ve given up no more than 1.06 points per possession, and held opponents to under 1.0 four times.
- Trevis Simpson’s Outdoes Himself With 41-Point Game — UNC-Greensboro’s Trevis Simpson had to be feeling pretty good about himself a week ago. He was coming off a career-high 30-point performance that led his team to a 66-64 win over Samford. But rather than rest on his laurels, Simpson promptly outdid himself, setting a new career best with 41 points in a win over Chattanooga on Sunday. Simpson shot 14-of-25 from the field, including 7-of-13 from three-point range. “I felt like I was in the zone,” Simpson remarked after the game. Yes, Trevis, I’d say you were.
Looking Forward: What We’re Watching
Here are the games to keep an eye on over the next week.
- Ohio at Akron (2/2) — This is the game MAC fans have been waiting for. The two teams are clearly the class of the league, both standing undefeated adopt the East Division standings. While college hoops fans are likely more familiar with Ohio due to its Sweet Sixteen exploits last year, Akron may well be the better team this year. That’s in large part due to the continued development of 7-foot senior center Zeke Marshall. Over his four years, Marshall has steadily tapped more and more of his considerable potential. He’s now one of the most efficient offensive players in the country, and his shotblocking presence inside anchors the Zips’ defense. But to beat Ohio, Akron will need to do more than patrol the paint. They’ll need to take away the three-point shot, contain D.J. Cooper’s playmaking ability, and take care of the ball against the Bobcats’ pressure defense.
- Temple at Saint Joseph’s (2/2) — Both teams have had uneven years at best, relative to their preseason expectations, but they remain in the hunt for an at-large Tournament bid. The Big Five battle will give each a chance to strengthen their arguments to the Selection Committee. Temple sometimes relies heavily on jump-shooting, but tendency may serve them well against a St. Joe’s defense that makes things difficult around the basket. The Owls’ offense flows primarily through Khalif Wyatt, who has one of the highest possession usage rates in the country. The Hawks, meanwhile, will look to guards Carl Jones and Langston Galloway to carry the scoring load.
- Creighton at Indiana State (2/6) — Indiana State busted its way into the MVC title race this past week with 13-point stomping of Wichita State on the road. They now sit just one game back of both the Shockers and Creighton. So you can bet the Terre Haute campus will be buzzing on Wednesday when the Sycamores welcome Doug McDermott and his compatriots to town. Against Creighton, you need to start with a solid defense that can defend the three well, and Indiana State has that. On the other end of the court, point guard Jake Odum and Gonzaga transfer Manny Arop will try to generate enough offense to give the Sycamores the win.
- Southern Miss at Central Florida (2/6) — A three-point win at Tulsa kept Southern Miss undefeated in conference play and tied with Memphis at the top of the standings. The Golden Eagles will have a chance to gain separation from the rest of the league when they travel to third-place Central Florida. The big challenge for Southern Miss in this game will be to contain the Knights’ inside combo of Keith Clanton and Tristan Spurlock. Southern Miss is one of the smallest teams in the country, and while their gaggle of guards and wings make their offense go, interior defense is a vulnerability. They’ll also have to avoid looking past this game to next Saturday’s tilt against Memphis.
- Belmont at Murray State (2/7) — This is the only meeting of the year between the two OVC powers, so if you’ve yet to catch a game from this conference, this is as good a contest as you’ll see. Belmont has to be considered the favorite, as they are undefeated in conference play, having run off nine straight wins since the start of the 2013. Their highly-efficient offense is led by senior guard Ian Clark, who leads the country in both effective and true FG %. The Bruins will bomb you from three-point land, while their defense presses the issue to generate turnovers. Murray State has had a somewhat tougher go of conference play, dropping a pair of games and now coming off a loss at Jacksonville State. Their defense may be able to contain Belmont’s shooters, but their inability to take care of the ball could haunt them. The matchups between Kerron Johnson and Isaiah Canaan at the point, and Blake Jenkins and Ed Daniel in the post, will go a long way to deciding this one.
- Jacksonville at Florida Gulf Coast (2/2) / Jacksonville at Mercer (2/7) — There may not be a conference in Division 1 with as much parity as the Atlantic Sun. Half the teams in the league are within one game of first place, while four squads share a lead in the standings with a 7-3 record. Of those four, Jacksonville is perhaps the most surprising. The Bulls were 8-22 last year and stumbled out to a 5-8 non-conference record this year, with only three of those wins coming against Division 1 competition. But they’ve won five of their last six, ekeing out several close games. Will their string of good luck end this week, when they take on two of the A-Sun’s finest? The development of junior guard Keith Macdougald and the introduction of freshman Jarvis Haywood have given the Bulls some offensive options, and their play may dictate how long they can stay in the conference race.