Niagara Hoops Preview: Purple Eagles to Challenge Siena For MAAC Title
After a 26 win season and a second place finish in the MAAC, Niagara is no longer under the radar and returns all but one player from last year's successful squad.
Unfortunately, 6'10" Benson Egemonye, an imposing low-post presence, is the one graduate, leaving coach Joe Mihalich to find a replacement. The Purple Eagles don't have a single experienced player to fill Egemonye's void and the role will likely be given to either Andre "Scooter" Gillette or Eric Williams, both of whom are 6'8" freshmen.
Until Niagara works out its big man situation, analysts will have an easy time picking conference foe Siena ahead of the Purple Eagles—the Saints' frontcourt, consisting of Alex Franklin, Ryan Rossiter, and O.D. Anosike, is likely the best overall frontcourt in the league. However, Niagara has the best backcourt in the MAAC, which will enable them to compete with Siena whether or not a low-post presence is found.
Senior shooting guard Tyrone Lewis, who led the MAAC with 91 steals and also averaged 16.7 points per game as a junior, is the offensive leader. Although his shooting is sometimes erratic, Lewis is Niagara's go-to-scorer. He'll need to improve his 33.7 percent field goal percentage in order to maximize his effectiveness.
Senior Bilal Benn, a 6'5" versatile guard/forward, is Niagara's best overall player. Although his height indicates he should play the two or three, Benn spent a lot of time at power forward last season because of team needs and his tremendous rebounding ability. He averaged 13.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 2.4 steals per game and shot 43 percent from the floor. His range extends beyond the arc, as evidenced by his 31.3 percent conversion rate from deep.
On almost any other MAAC team, Lewis and Benn would be under so much pressure to perform their best every night. However, Niagara's Rob Garrison and Anthony Nelson can pick up the slack if the rim is unforgiving for either Lewis or Benn.
Garrison, a senior who transferred from UConn for his final two collegiate seasons, was essential to Niagara's success last season. The 6'2" guard averaged 10.9 points and 2.5 assists per game and proved capable of posting high scoring totals—he contributed over 15 points 11 times last season.
Second to Siena's Ronald Moore in assist-to-turnover ratio, Nelson is a skilled point guard. He typically won't impress you with point totals, but his ability to set up his teammates is rare in the MAAC. Nelson led Niagara with 5.5 assist per game.
Mihalich implemented a nine man rotation last season, but Demetrius Williamson was the only bench player to receive over 10 minutes per game. Williamson, who was the MAAC's best sixth man a year ago, will likely be Niagara's first man off the bench again.
Mihalich is arguably the best coach in the MAAC, although most would give the title to Siena's Fran McCaffery. In his 11th year at the helm of the Purple Eagles, Mihalich assembled a challenging but winnable schedule to help bolster Niagara's tournament resume.
The Purple Eagles open their season at Auburn, who is projected as one of the SEC's worst teams. However, a win at an SEC team can only help the resume. Games at Akron and Illinois State will be tough, but the Purple Eagles should come out on top. Depending on how they fare against Air Force in the Sun Bowl Tournament, the Purple Eagles might play host UTEP.
Expect Niagara to win the majority of their non-conference games and head into MAAC play with a lot of confidence. The Purple Eagles have their weaknesses down low, but they will be hard to defeat in the MAAC.
Projected Finish: 24-6, 14-4 MAAC
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