The Niagara Purple Eagles own one of the strangest records you will ever see. The team finished the conference slate 6-14, but all of their wins came against the top seven teams in the final standings.
Chris Casey’s squad ended the December weekend of league play with an impressive 74-58 road win over #3 Iona, which at the time was the largest margin of victory for a MAAC team over the Gaels in the last seven years. Upon the resumption of league play in January, the Purple Eagles took down #4 Siena at home, and later gutted out a road victory over #2 Saint Peter’s.
Player to watch: #13 Matt Scott, Jr. G
Niagara also earned a victory over #6 Rider and a season sweep of local rival #7 Canisius, which was in position for a tournament bye until the final day of the regular season.
“I think they’re a reflection of what we’re capable of,” Casey said of those wins against top squads. “As a group, we need to realize what we’re capable of, but we have to be able to do it on a more consistent basis.”
The Purple Eagles find themselves in the bottom tier of the final standings thanks largely to suffering season sweeps to fellow Thursday participants Quinnipiac, Manhattan, and Marist. As the #9 seed, Niagara will once again match up with #8 seed Quinnipiac in the first game of the weekend Thursday evening at 5:00 p.m.
Junior Matt Scott leads the Purple Eagles and ranks fifth in the MAAC with 17.3 points per game. The Brooklyn native also fills the stat sheet as Niagara’s leading rebounder with 7.0 per game and second-best assist man, handing out 3.0 per contest. Earlier this week, Scott was named to the all-MAAC Third Team, an honor he also received as a sophomore last season.
“He came into the year with a stronger body, which I think helped maintain him,” Casey said of Scott during a league conference call earlier this week. “I thought last year he had a little bit of a tail-off in the second half of the year, but if you look at him this year he’s got almost the exact same numbers in the first ten games in the conference as he did in the last ten games.”
Fellow junior Kahlil Dukes checks in at 15.5 ppg and leads the team with 4.2 apg while the sophomore duo of Marvin Prochet and Dominic Robb hold down the frontcourt. Prochet averages 9.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per contest, while Robb adds 8.4 ppg along with 6.2 rpg. Dukes, a transfer from USC, is also the league’s leading free throw shooter at 92%.
Niagara is a young team on the rise, as evidenced by their set of marquee wins despite listing just one senior on the roster. The team’s third through ninth scorers are all underclassmen, and any postseason experience gained this weekend is sure to pay dividends for Casey’s squad in the future.
“Bottom line for us is we need to gain more experience and depth so that we can win on a more consistent basis and have some more carry-over from one year to the next,” Casey added. “I think we’ve shown ourselves to be competitive; the next step is to show ourselves to be able to win more often.”
As mentioned, Quinnipiac earned the season sweep over Niagara this year. The Bobcats stole the first meeting upstate 81-78 on January 2 with a late rally. Then in the second game February 4 in Hamden, Niagara cut a 28 point second half deficit down to six, but ultimately fell 89-81. Dukes was limited to 13 points the first time the teams met, but broke out with a career-high 29 the second time around.
Although Niagara enters the conference tournament on a five-game slide, their opponent is in no better shape. The Bobcats travel to Albany in the midst of a six-game losing streak. With both teams seeking to right the ship, one will pick up a vital confidence booster before a meeting 24 hours later with top-seeded Monmouth.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.