Entering the MAAC tournament, the hottest team in the conference was not Iona, Manhattan or any of the top five seeds, it was the Niagara Purple Eagles.
Chris Casey’s team won four in a row prior to entering the MAAC tournament up in Albany. Doubling their win total over a span of two weeks gave the Purple Eagels some optimism for the future, despite falling in the first round to Siena.
“What we have to learn is we have to be consistent throughout the course of the game and be able to do it in long spurts, rather than short spurts,” Casey said. “Whether it be from game to game, or within the confines of the game, so we’re learning that and we’re getting better at it.”
It became clear during that stretch that the future of the Purple Eagles would depend on young players. Not surprising, considering Niagara ranked 349th of 351 teams in experience according to KenPom. Over the final five games of the season redshirt freshman Dominique Reid averaged 15.6 ppg and redshirt sophomore Emile Blackman averaged 15.2 ppg.
Casey said he was disappointed that Blackman, who averaged 13.5 ppg over the course of the season to led the Purple Eagles, did not receive a selection on one of the All-MAAC teams in March. The LIU Post transfer playing in his first season with Niagara, his second under Casey, ranked 11th in scoring, tied for 10th in field goal percentage (with Siena’s Lavon Long) and seventh in three-point field goal percentage in the MAAC.
In between seasons under Casey—which Blackman spent as a redshirt because he was moving from Division II up to Division I—the 6’4″ swingman improved off the dribble and became a better passer according to his coach.
Meanwhile the 6’8″ Reid figures to be a key piece in Niagara’s future. The MAAC All-Rookie forward led the team in blocks and after redshirting with a knee injury two seasons ago, is gradually becoming more effective.
“I think we’re only catching glimpses of what he can do,” Casey said of Reid, who ranked second on the team averaging 5.9 rpg. “He can improve defensively, shot blocking, his reactions will get quicker as he continues to get his feet under him. I think he’s just scratching the surface right now.”
While Ramone Snowden, Wesley Myers, and others have announced their intent to transfer within the past few weeks, the Purple Eagles will return Blackman and Reid; two of their three leading scorers from last season. Casey’s priority of who to put around them is based on only one thing: talent.
“I think we just have to add good players,” Casey said. “I think we go out and we recruit and try to get the best players we can get and then figure it out from there; guys with good character, who want to work hard, want to get better and want to play in a team concept. We can always make tweaks to what we do the key is having good players.”
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2014-15 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference, among others, for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.