Niagara finished the regular season 19-12 overall with a 12-6 league record and enters the MAAC tournament as the #3 overall seed. The Purple Eagles will begin tournament play against #6 seed Fairfield in the quarterfinals Saturday night at 7:00.
The Purple Eagles have mostly lived up to preseason expectations despite some setbacks down the stretch. Due to early exits from Rider and Canisius, Niagara is already the highest remaining seed in the tournament before it ever takes to the court. The #3 seed is the Purple Eagles’ highest since 2013, when they won the MAAC regular season title with a 13-5 record and entered the tournament as the #1 overall seed.
Player to Watch: #10 Kahlil Dukes, R-Sr. G
Point guard Kahlil Dukes has been Niagara’s most consistent player this season, and his outstanding production earned him MAAC Co-Player of the Year honors alongside Canisius’ Jermaine Crumpton. Dukes ranks second in the MAAC with 21.1 ppg, and leads the team with 3.3 assists per game.
The former USC transfer connects on 42.8% of his three-point attempts, and is the best free throw shooter in the MAAC at 90.4%. Dukes’ consistent play at the point has been invaluable to the Purple Eagles, as Niagara turns the ball over less than any other team in the MAAC.
Right alongside Dukes in the spotlight is senior Matt Scott, who checks in at 19.5 ppg, 7.4 rebounds per game, and 2.7 apg. Scott was named to the All-MAAC Second Team, but missed the Purple Eagles’ last three games to end the regular season after injuring his right ankle early in Niagara’s 85-84 win at Iona on Feb. 16.
Scott has since been rehabbing and officially listed as day-to-day, but remains questionable to suit up at any point in the MAAC tournament. Even if Scott should be able to play, there is no telling how effective he will be until he sees some time on the court.
When both Dukes and Scott are healthy and on the court together, they combine for as effective a duo as you will see at the mid-major level.
Although the top two are the subject of much attention, Niagara’s Marvin Prochet is just as vital to the team’s success. The junior forward leads the MAAC in rebounding with 7.8 rpg, puts through 10.5 ppg, compiled eight double-doubles this season, and is capable of stretching the floor to hit a three, on which he is 38.8% for the year.
Despite his productiveness and versatility, Prochet was not named to any of the three All-MAAC teams.
“I thought there were a lot of really good things that that young man did,” head coach Chris Casey said of Prochet. “People talk about Matt Scott and Kahlil Dukes and they should, and I always throw Marvin’s name in with that because he is of vital importance to our team with what he does… I’m sure he’ll be disappointed that he didn’t make [All-MAAC], but he’ll flip it to a positive and use it as motivation.”
Other Niagara players to keep an eye on include sophomore guard James Towns and junior forward Greg King.
Towns stepped up to become the clear third option in the backcourt behind Dukes and Scott, and has played wonderfully of late. The Detroit native rakes in 9.3 ppg while connecting on 49.7% of his attempts from the field. Towns has broken the 20-point threshold three times in his last nine games, and closed the regular season with four consecutive double-digit efforts.
“James, along with a number of other guys, has done a good job of stepping up and helping us put points up on the board and defensively handling some assignments,” Casey said.
King is in his first season with the Purple Eagles after transferring out of Eastern Kentucky following the 2015-16 campaign. At 6-foot-7 and 238 pounds, the Atlanta native brings another big body to the Niagara frontcourt. King averaged 5.7 rpg this season, and has pulled down double-digit caroms twice in his last four games.
The Purple Eagles have not advanced past the MAAC tournament quarterfinals since that 2013 season, and have not reached the final since coming up short to Siena in 2009. With its most successful regular season since 2013 in the rearview mirror, the potent Purple Eagles will shoot for the pinnacle of the league this weekend.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.