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(Information in this team report is as of Oct. 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
Joe Mihalich earned his college degree in mathematics and education, but the winningest men's basketball coach in MAAC history also appreciates art.
"We have a blank canvas and are hoping we can put a portrait together that everyone will like," Mihalich said.
The picture was anything but pretty for Niagara last season, as Mihalich suffered just his second losing campaign since arriving on Monteagle Ridge on April 8, 1998.
"We did take our lumps," Mihalich said. "Whatever could go wrong did go wrong. But, as the saying goes, if it doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger."
With no seniors and just three juniors on the roster, this could be another rebuilding season for the Purple Eagles.
The Purple Eagles have several roles to fill, the largest being the guard spot vacated by Anthony Nelson (15.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 5.1 apg, 3.4 spg), Niagara's career leader in assists and the NCAA steals leader last season. Nelson, who was named MAAC Defensive Player of the Year, is the first player in Purple Eagle history to finish his career with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 600 assists and 200 steals.
Two other players with eligibility remaining, forward Kahief Edwards (12.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and guard Kevon Moore (4.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg) will not be returning. Edwards graduated in the summer and is expected to play his final season at Northeastern. Moore, a transfer from UNC Wilmington, played one season at Niagara.
"I think it will be gradual," Mihalich said of his team's development. "I don't think we can just snap our fingers and fix everything.
"We are a young team and we have our fingers crossed that the freshmen can learn on the job and get better as the season goes on."
The Purple Eagles did get a head start on the season with a four-game preseason tour to Montreal. Niagara will also be bolstered by the healthy return of Antoine Mason (16.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg), a 6-3 guard who led Niagara in scoring through three games before a foot injury ended his season. Mason is the son of former NBA star Anthony Mason and will have four seasons of eligibility remaining after receiving a medical redshirt.
"He's a gamer," Mihalich said. "When the lights go on and the ball goes up in the air, Antoine Mason is ready to play."
As is Marvin Jordan (11.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.3 apg). Jordan, a 5-11 guard, scored in double figures 21 times as a freshman, sinking 77 three-pointers (77-of-224, .344 3PT) while earning a spot on the MAAC's All-Rookie Team.
Malcolm Lemmons (5.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg), a 6-3 sophomore, made 12 starts last season and will look to take on a larger role. The same can be said for Skylar Jones (5.2 ppg, 2.6 rpg), a lanky 6-5 sophomore.
With Edwards out of the picture, Mihalich said he may employ a "three-headed monster" consisting of 6-8 juniors Eric Williams (4.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg) and Scooter Gillette (3.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg) and 6-7 redshirt freshman Joe Thomas in the frontcourt. If that trio can combine for 20 points and 15 rebounds per game, the coaching staff will be more than pleased.
Niagara welcomes three newcomers, and all will be counted on to contribute immediately.
A great deal of responsibility is likely to fall on the shoulders of 6-3 freshman point guard Juan'ya Green. Green (21.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 5.5 apg) was voted the Catholic League Co-Player of the Year at Philadelphia's Archbishop Carroll. He graduated as Carroll's career scoring leader with 1,492 points and chose Niagara over the likes of Villanova, Temple, Saint Joseph's and Maryland.
Even Mihalich, who usually takes a cautious approach with freshmen, has lofty expectations.
"We may just give him the ball and turn him loose," Mihalich said. "He can score, make plays and control the game."
Freshman Ameen Tanksley, a versatile 6-6 forward, played on two Pennsylvania state championship teams at Philadelphia's Imhotep Charter School, where as a senior he averaged 14 points, seven rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks for a 31-3 team. He adds toughness and the ability to stretch defenses.
"The more rebounds, the more he'll play," Mihalich said matter-of-factly.
The Purple Eagles also landed Ali Langford, a 6-6 forward from Salt Lake City who played at Allan Hancock (Calif.) College last season. Langford led Allan Hancock to its first conference title since 1974 while leading his conference in scoring (21.6 ppg) and the state in rebounding (12.8 rpg). He is a bit undersized, but is a playmaker who finds ways to get the job done.
Niagara will also add Josh Turner, a 6-5 guard from Waterbury, Conn., after the first semester. Turner averaged 27.5 points and 8.0 rebounds as a senior at Sacred Heart High School in 2009-10.
"He's a smooth scorer and passer," Mihalich said.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Niagara finds itself in the unusual position of rebuilding for a second straight season. Mihalich is the architect of a program that has gone to two NCAA Tournaments (2005 and 2007) in his 13 seasons after the Purple Eagles had made it one other time (1970) in their history.
Mihalich can lead his team back toward the top of the league, but it isn't likely to happen right away. The loss of Nelson would have been difficult under normal circumstances but will be compounded with the exits of Edwards and Moore. A lack of size and questionable depth could be issues on such a young team.
The return of Mason and arrival of Green, Langford and Tanksley will help, but Niagara can't be expected to mesh right away. The preseason tour should help the Purple Eagles hit the ground running, but it may take them a while to hit full speed.
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2011-12 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.