Revolving Door Shut, Niagara Might Be MAAC Contender

As a freshman or sophomore, Matt Scott could have chalked up Niagara’s 101-76 blowout loss to UMass Sunday afternoon to growing pains for a young team. But the revolving door that had plagued Chris Casey’s first few seasons in greater Buffalo has been closed for the time being.

(The extensive list here is only partial, believe it or not.)

If you count Kahlil Dukes’ transfer year from USC, everyone that started for Niagara Sunday has been with the program for at least three seasons. The time of Joe Mihalich winning the MAAC regular season and then taking Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley with him to Hofstra was five years ago. Since then, Casey – playing with a different hand every year – has gone 33-97 at Niagara. Even with sympathy points for starting in a tough spot and having seemingly everyone transfer his first two seasons, there is some pressure to succeed.

And succeed the Purple Eagles (1-2) did in their opener, beating one of the Atlantic-10 favorites, St. Bonaventure, in Olean. They played Minnesota very tough for 30 minutes in their next game, but were outclassed by a young UMass team with a new coach (Matt McCall, formerly of Chattanooga) almost from the opening tip on Sunday. Luwane Pipkins, who may be heard from in the A-10, scored 24 (including 7 three-pointers) in just 24 minutes to lead the Minutemen, who did whatever they pleased at the offensive end.

“We’re better, but there’s still a lot we need to learn,” Scott said. “We played better defensively in our first two games. Today, we didn’t come out with enough intensity on defense and that let them feel good. After that, they were tough to stop.”

Scott moved into 29th all-time at Niagara in scoring with his 26 points against UMass and has been a star since his freshman season. But because of his team’s record, he has done so in relative anonymity, a fact he would desperately like to change in his final college campaign.

“It’s a lot different,” Scott said. “With a veteran team, the guys know what to do. Learning the college game can be tough for young players. We’re going to try to use that to our advantage and win as many games as we can. We had a good road win at St. Bonaventure, but we’re still learning. We’ll keep getting better.”

That veteran squad includes Dukes, a preseason second team all-MAAC pick, who struggled Sunday, but was 11-19 from three-point range in Niagara’s first two games. While Scott is a lefty slasher who likes to do his damage around the rim (although he did shoot 40% from deep in MAAC play last season), Dukes is the perimeter part of the duo. Chris Barton, Marvin Prochet, and Dominic Robb round out the starting five, all of whom have seen enough losses to know it’s time for a change.

To do that, however, Niagara will have to play some defense. The Purple Eagles play an entertaining style and should be able to score against most opponents. However, Niagara has never finished better than 237th nationally in defensive efficiency under Casey, forcing very few turnovers and offering little impediment near the rim against good teams.

They did coerce UMass into 18 turnovers, but Sunday was the second straight contest it allowed 100 points, and Niagara has averaged a woeful 1.41 points per possession allowed in those games. To be fair, they were both against superior conferences than the MAAC, but other than Robb they do play small. Casey made the decision to make UMass beat them from the outside Sunday, and the Minutemen obliged by shooting 15-26 from behind the arc. They also rebounded 52% of their misses, which made for a long afternoon.

“I tip my hat to them. I thought they played well,” Casey said. “They moved the ball well. They shot the ball well. And they really hurt us on the glass, which is something we need to work on. The road is tough, we’ve had some tough travels and we continue it now by jumping on a plane going to Utah to play BYU. We want to play better and we will play better, but the road can be tough. I made the decision to make them hit shots and they made threes. Knowing they would make 15 threes, I would say get out on shooters, but that’s hindsight.”

Casey was obviously not pleased with the effort against UMass, but didn’t seem overly perturbed. Perhaps he couldn’t afford to be with a powerful BYU offense waiting Tuesday night. After that, we should start to get a little better read into where Niagara is and MAAC play will be here before you know it (Dec. 29 hosting defending champ Iona). Siena and Rider are the two teams Niagara will see only once in the MAAC’s new 18-game schedule.

“This is our first time with a veteran group,” Casey said. “It’s a good team and it’s going to get better. We didn’t play particularly well today and a lot of them was due to them (UMass).”

Even though it has finished 11th, 9th, 10th, and 9th, respectively, in the four years since Mihalich left, Niagara was picked fifth in the preseason MAAC poll behind Iona, Manhattan, Monmouth, and Fairfield. Fifth is a good starting point and would get Niagara a bye into the quarterfinals in March in Albany. But Scott, for one, has his sights set higher.

“As a team, we appreciate being recognized, but we’re just trying to take it one game at a time. We just want to prove that we should be No. 1 in the MAAC instead of No. 5,” Scott said.

With a little defense, why not?

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