Three Thoughts: Vermont 85, Niagara 67

UNCASVILLE, Conn. – There’s no time for what could have beens for college basketball coaches and teams, but there has to be at least a moment or two where Chris Casey and Niagara fans wonder the last couple of seasons.

Part of that isn’t reasonable, but consider this partial list of players who started their careers at Niagara and are still eligible to be playing with them starting with Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley, both at Hofstra, and both first-team preseason All-CAA picks for the Pride, who are also picked to win the conference. It wouldn’t be their first regular-season title, of course, Niagara won the MAAC regular season three years ago before Joe Mihalich left to go to Hofstra and took Green and Tanksley with him.

That team (which went 19-14, 13-5 in the MAAC) also included then-freshman T.J. Cline, who showed plenty of potential and has blossomed into a stud … at Richmond of the Atlantic-10, a big man who can hold his own inside and step out to hit shots as well. That doesn’t take into account, Tahjere McCall, who played decent minutes as a freshman and now starts at Tennessee State.

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Still, Casey regrouped (even after Antoine Mason decided to play his final year of eligibility at Auburn, too) and built a young squad last season around freshman Dominique Reid and sophomore Ramone Snowden, with sophomore Wesley Myers also playing a large role, and the trio seemed to be improving dramatically as the 2014-15 season progressed, the Purple Eagles finished 8-22, but won their last four regular season games, and with the third least experience of 351 Division I teams (according to KenPom), there was nowhere to go but up.

Famous last words.

To keep a long story short, Snowden transferred to James Madison, Myers left to play for Maine, and Reid got arrested twice and was then dismissed from school. Rayvon Harris, who was a key bench contributor, decided to transfer to Division II Winston-Salem State for his final season after graduating.

And it got worse, freshmen James Suber, Anders Skou Hansen, DayJar Dickson, and Julian Richardson – all of whom played minor roles but could have stepped up – left Niagara as well.

So Casey and the Purple Eagles are back to Square One this season (exacerbated even further by sophomore Karonn Davis being suspended for four games, including both this weekend). They are still the 311th most experienced team in Division I.

“We just have to make a few shots,” Casey said after Saturday’s 85-67 loss to Vermont at Mohegan Sun Arena. “We’re still finding our way, but there’s no other group I would want to find my way with than these guys. We’ll go back to the hotel, look at the tape, and get better for tomorrow’s game (against North Carolina A&T).”

As they showed Saturday, though, they’re going to play hard for Casey. Eventually, Vermont took over late in the game, but from the “one man’s mistake is another man’s opportunity” school, players like Emile Blackman – himself a transfer from Division II LIU Post – and sophomore Matt Scott (from Brooklyn) have done their best to step up and help the rest of the entirely new roster get accustomed to this level and hopefully be competitive in the MAAC.

The Purple Eagles will add potentially impact transfer Kahlil Dukes from USC next season, and – if they can keep the band together – may find themselves with some stability for the first time since Casey (who was recently given a contract extension) arrived on campus three years ago.

For now, they’ll just have to battle.

What else did we learn from Niagara and Vermont Saturday at the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic?

  1. Trae Bell-Haynes may be the biggest key in America East

The Canadian point guard showed enormous potential last season, but could not shake the turnover bug, posting an unacceptable 31.4% turnover rate (an even worse 32.3% in conference play). Even in the postseason, Bell-Haynes had seven against Radford and five more in the season-ending loss to Louisiana-Monroe in the CBI.

He began this season with seven in just 20 minutes in a loss to Eastern Michigan, but the last two games has been Vermont’s best player: scoring a career-high 21 points against Quinnipiac and raising that to 28 Saturday to go with five rebounds and four assists. He did have three turnovers, so there’s still some work to do, but if he can handle pressure, the Catamounts will be right there in America East again.

“My mentality has been a little better the last couple games, not letting one mistake affect the next couple plays,” Bell-Haynes said. “I know the coaches have really stressed that, so I’ve been using their criticism to help me stay focused.”

2) Finding some offense

It was a strange 2014-15 season for Vermont, who posted its lowest offensive efficiency rank (189th) of John Becker’s reign in Burlington, despite ranking 69th in efG% (51.4). Much of that was what was in the previous note, the Catamounts were 251st in turnover rate, and didn’t really rebound on the offensive end at all (304th). All that left them at just 20-14 despite being sixth nationally in defensive eFG% (43.4%).

On Saturday, the Catamounts turned the ball over a respectable, but not great 12 times (17.1% was their lowest mark of the season, after 30.9% against Eastern Michigan). Ernie Duncan was 4-for-5 from behind the arc after getting into foul trouble in the first half, and Kurt Steidl added three more three-pointers to give them another shooting option. Down low, Ethan O’Day (who had a big crowd as he grew up only 30 minutes from Mohegan Sun) is currently 23-of-33 from the field this season (69.7%).

“I think we’re a balanced team, anyone can go off and score a lot of points,” Duncan said. “That makes us tough to defend.”

So we’re pretty sure Vermont will defend and it will make shots, and it can even live with not getting many offensive rebounds, but it can’t turn the ball over at a high rate the way it plays.

3) Speaking of defense, Niagara

One of the things you tend to see consistently with young teams is the inability to defend, and it was certainly the case with Niagara last season, as the Purple Eagles finished 309th in efficiency, just 333rd in eFG% efficiency (53.7%), meaning teams were just consistently getting good looks against them. Casey admits it’s been one of the things he’s worked on most, and Niagara allowed Brown just 0.90 points per possession in an impressive win in Buffalo on Wednesday, and even kept St. Joseph’s to 0.97 ppp despite losing last week.

On Saturday, Vermont was at just 1.03 ppp at halftime and a late Emile Blackman three-pointer pulled to within 36-35 at the half. But the Catamounts came out of the locker room a bit angry, and the Purple Eagles didn’t seem to have much of a response defensively, as Vermont turned the ball over only four teams and posted 1.32 points per possession. As they mature, Niagara will have to learn how to take such a punch from a solid team and withstand it.

“Our defensive field goal percentage was 39% coming into this game, and we had played three really good teams (Old Dominion, St. Joseph’s, Brown),” Casey said. “I think our defense isn’t just a little bit better, it’s a lot better. But today, it wasn’t good. We didn’t start the game well, although at one point they were 3-for-21. We tried to go man-to-man because they started hitting threes, and then they scored some more.”

Bonus) Free throw shooting

Vermont was 19-of-21 from the free throw line Saturday, and is currently 16th nationally in the early season at 80.9%. Can the keep it up? They were just 162nd last season (69.6%). Getting Bell-Haynes to the line more often (19-of-21 this season already) will help that number.

Double bonus) Tough week for Ali Tew

Niagara’s backup center is a Paris native and the Buffalo News caught up with him to get his thoughts on the Paris attacks last week. Helps to remember that it’s only a game sometimes.

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