Outlook: Finally benefitting from stability in the offseason, the Purple Eagles have the pieces to make a jump into the upper echelon of the MAAC.
Last year: 10-23 (6-14 MAAC)
Who’s in: Dominik Fragala (G); Keleaf Tate (G); Kierell Green (F); Greg King (F); Greg Kuakumensah (F)
Who’s out: Shane Gatling (G); Maurice Taylor Jr. (F); Alioune Tew (F)
Key Non-Conference Games: @St. Bonaventure (11/10); @Minnesota (11/15); @BYU 11/21; Buffalo (11/29)
College basketball is built on great stories, and Niagara could end up the MAAC’s Cinderella this season. During head coach Chris Casey’s previous four years at the helm the Purple Eagles have been gutted by transfers, with over a dozen players leaving the team in that short time. Now, for the first time in his tenure, Casey returns a squad full of veteran talent capable of winning the league.
Eight of Niagara’s 13 players are upperclassmen, and all five starters from last season’s squad return – led by seniors Matt Scott and Kahlil Dukes.
Scott has been named to the league’s Third Team each of the last two seasons, but was selected to the preseason First Team on Tuesday. The Brooklyn native led the team in points (17.0) and rebounds (7.0) last season, and has become the cornerstone of this Purple Eagles team.
Dukes joined the team as a transfer from USC prior to the 2015-16 season, but only became eligible last year. In his first season with Niagara, Dukes racked up 15.5 ppg along with a team-leading 4.1 assists per contest. The Hartford native also set a program record with a 92.1% record from the free throw line, good for fifth in the nation.
The third starting member of Niagara’s backcourt is junior Chris Barton. Barton averaged 7.2 points and 2.7 rebounds while connecting on 45.1% of his shots last season. Never one to shy away from a defensive assignment, Barton should also separate himself as one of the MAAC’s better on-ball defenders this season.
Speaking of defense, the league’s Defensive Player of the Year may very well come in the form of 6-foot-8 junior forward Dominic Robb. The Pittsburgh native set the program’s single-season block record with 74 last season, good for 23rd in all of Division I. Along with his 2.2 blocks per game, Robb averaged 8.4 points and 6.3 rebounds in a league dominated by senior forwards last season. With much of that opposition now absent from the league, Robb has every opportunity to assert himself as one of the MAAC’s top post players.
Alongside Robb is 6-foot-7 junior forward Marvin Prochet. Another son of Brooklyn, Prochet ranked third on the team in both points (9.4) and rebounds (5.5) while adding 1.1 blocks per game.
A trio of guards make up the remainder of Niagara’s returners, and will provide the team with ample depth. Kevin Larkin, a redshirt junior, averaged 4.6 points and 2.6 rebounds last season. Sophomore James Towns checked in with 4.0 points and 2.9 boards per game during his freshman campaign while Bronx native Dwayne Pow averaged 3.3 points in just 10 games before missing the remainder of the season with an ankle injury.
Greg King and Kierell Green – both 6-foot-7 forwards – sat out last season, but will be eligible to play this year. Green averaged 11.5 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 3.7 blocks during his senior year at the Integrated Design and Electronic Academy in Washington D.C. and will retain his freshman eligibility this season. King, a redshirt junior, sat out last year after transferring from Eastern Kentucky, where he averaged 3.0 points and 2.7 rebounds in 23 games.
Casey has also brought in three freshmen to compete on this veteran squad. Greg Kuakumensah should provide plenty of athleticism to the Purple Eagles’ frontcourt, while Dominik Fragala and Keleaf Tate both bring legitimate scoring ability to the table.
Fragala and Tate should also help ease the burden on top guards Scott and Dukes, who were burdened with massive minutes totals last season. Scott averaged 34.5 minutes per game, while Dukes was on the floor for 33.7 each night.
For the first time in years, expectations are high for the Purple Eagles, who as recently as 2013 won the league regular season title. Entering his fifth season with the club, Casey is just 32-96 with a 21-59 league record as head coach. Despite that lack of success, the team does own a pair of MAAC tournament wins over that span, and two years ago fell in the opening round to rival Canisius in 3OT.
There have been glimpses of what this team can be given the right circumstances, and hope remains that this year can be the one Niagara finally returns to relevance.
Niagara is set to play a solid non-conference schedule which begins with four straight road contests. The Purple Eagles open at St. Bonaventure before taking on a possibly-ranked Minnesota team the following week. Visits to UMass and BYU precede three home games against Alabama A&M, Army, and Buffalo around Thanksgiving.
As part of the MAAC’s move to an unbalanced 18-game schedule, Niagara will neither host Siena nor travel to Rider.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.