Entering the offseason after an 84-59 loss to top-ranked Monmouth in the MAAC tournament quarterfinals, Niagara now turns its focus toward continuity.
“I think there’s been progress but I think we need a lot more progress,” head coach Chris Casey said, reflecting on his program following the loss. “We want to be what they [Monmouth] are. To do that, we have to retain, we have to stay together, we have to keep building, and we have to get carryover from year to year.”
Since Casey took over the program in 2013, the Purple Eagles have often struggled to retain players from one year to the next. Standouts like Antoine Mason, T.J. Cline, Ramone Snowden, and Dominique Reid have all left western New York in pursuit of opportunities elsewhere.
Despite a 6-14 conference record in 2016-17, Niagara showed signs of a program on the rise. In the opening weekend of MAAC play in December, the Purple Eagles went into New Rochelle and – in one of the most difficult arenas in the nation for visiting teams to play – handed Iona just its 10th home loss in the last seven years.
Niagara’s 74-58 win was the largest margin of victory for a MAAC team over Iona during head coach Tim Cluess’ tenure until Monmouth and Rider handed the Gaels 18-point defeats later in the year. Cluess has built Iona into one of the MAAC’s premier teams since taking over in 2010, accumulating a 76-13 overall record since that point.
Of the Purple Eagles’ six league wins in 2016-17, half have come against the league’s top four teams. After taking down the Gaels, Niagara earned a win over fourth-ranked Siena and a road victory at second-ranked Saint Peter’s. The Purple Eagles also earned a season sweep of local rival Canisius and handed sixth-ranked Rider a 13-point defeat at the end of January.
“We just feel so much better this year with everything,” sophomore forward Dominic Robb said following Niagara’s tournament loss to Monmouth. “We feel more together. I just think we can achieve anything. You saw some of the games this year where we beat some of the top five teams in the MAAC. I feel like we can consistently do that with more togetherness, more work, and I feel like we’re in the right direction.”
Although a slew of player have left the program in the last four years, Casey hopes that revolving door will stay shut this offseason and his team can build around the corps of players currently on the roster.
“Sometimes to get to continuity, it’s a weeding-out process,” Casey said of recent departures. “We’ve had some turnover, but I thought we’ve handled the turnover well. Sometimes there can be positives out of turnover, and the positive out of the turnover we’ve had is the group that we have together right now.”
Key players eligible return next season include multiple All-MAAC Third Team selection Matt Scott and point guard Kahlil Dukes. The duo led the Purple Eagles in scoring at 17.4 and 15.6 ppg this season respectively. Scott paced the team on the glass with 7.0 rebounds per game, and Dukes led the team with 4.3 assists per contest.
Other names Casey can build around include Robb and fellow sophomore forward Marvin Prochet (the team’s third and fourth leading scorers), along with defensive standout Chris Barton. Freshmen Shane Gatling and James Towns, the latter of which averaged 12.0 points over two MAAC tournament games, should also see increased roles.
“This is an outstanding group,” Casey added after the team’s opening round win over Quinnipiac. “It’s a group with a lot of potential. It’s a group to build around and that can take further steps. It’s incumbent upon them to do what they did today, which is stay together. Together they can accomplish things.”
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.