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School: Niagara

Nickname: Purple Eagles

Affiliation: Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

Coach: Joe Mihalich

2011-12 record: 14-19, 8-10

Overview

The perimeter-oriented Purple Eagles will score, as they almost always do under Joe Mihalich. The big question is whether they have the post presence to combat what have been increasingly taller Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference opponents. Devon White, a 6-foot-8 fifth-year transfer from La Salle, was slotted as the answer until rupturing an Achilles tendon in June. Best-case scenario has him returning in late December.

“That’s the one position we needed to get better at and we felt he was the answer,” Mihalich said. “He was somebody we felt was really going to help us and we’re just going to have to wait a little bit. We’re a one-bid league. If we get him for league play ...”

White’s injury leaves 6-7 sophomore Joe Thomas, 6-8 senior Scooter Gillette and 6-8 freshman T.J. Cline to plug the middle. Thomas came on last year but he’ll need help until/if White returns. Cline brings offensive skills but will have to toughen up on the defensive end.

The need in the middle is defense and rebounding. The scoring will come from the wide array of push-it-up-the-floor guards headed by sophomores Juan’ya Green (17.7 ppg) and Antoine Mason (15.1).

“They’re a year older and a year better but they’re still young,” Mihalich said. “Just because you’re a sophomore, you’re still young. But they’re good.”

Marvin Jordan (10.4 ppg) made 35 percent of his 237 three-point attempts last year while Ameen Tanksley (8.7 ppg, team-high 5.9 rpg) and Malcolm Lemmons (8.3) can slash. Freshman Tahjere McCall, a 6-4 guard from Philly (where else?), will vie for minutes.

Keys to success

So many scorers, so few basketballs. No wonder the Purple Eagles had their chemistry issues at times last year.

The offense will again revolve around Green and Mason, both of whom averaged more than 34 minutes and possess one quality vital to guard-fueled offense — they can get to the free throw line. Green’s charge from the point position is to get everybody involved, at least early in the season, and see how it evolves.

Doubtless Niagara will again launch its share of threes and more. That willingness makes them tough to defend and capable of erasing double-digit deficits in a flash. But there will be nights when those shots aren’t falling and then ...

“It’s going to be about how well we rebound and defend the post,” Mihalich said.

Big games

The Purple Eagles are taking on all comers in an intriguing non-conference schedule that opens at Oregon State Friday and includes a marquee road game at No. 21 Notre Dame on Dec. 21. As for the home slate, there’s a pair of potential NCAA teams in Bucknell (Nov. 16) and Vermont (Dec. 16) along with a Nov. 18 game against New Mexico State. The Aggies lost the nucleus of last year’s 26-win NCAA team but feature 7-foot-5, 330-pound redshirt freshman Sim Bhullar, a Toronto native whose parents emigrated from India.

MAAC favorite Loyola (Md.) visits Monteagle Ridge on Feb. 2. Eight days later it’s the annual Gallagher Center showdown with Canisius.

Outlook

The injury to White tempers early-season expectations. Niagara’s hell-bent style — and the presence of guards who fit the mold — makes the Purple Eagles a tough matchup but that hole in the middle looms large. A bump to .500 after last year’s 14-19 would be progress for what’s still one of the country’s younger teams.

email: bdicesare@buffnews.com