Niagara-Canisius has resembled a neighborly dispute recently so it might be time for the rivalry to add some bite.
Both teams are playing their best basketball of the season and with the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship still in play, today’s matchup at a sold-out Koessler Center has that extra jolt that’s been missing for so long. There’s Niagara, which has dominated the series for the better part of the last decade, standing alone atop the MAAC standings. There’s improved Canisius, winners of one league game a year ago, trying to elbow its way closer to the league’s elite.
Tipoff is scheduled for 4 p.m. (Radio 1520, 1400 AM).
“It gives you a lot of juice, gives you a lot of excitement,” Canisius senior guard Harold Washington said. “You’re coming into a game where the crowd is going to be energetic, it’s going to be a packed house, it’s going to be 1,000 people bearing down on you. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Don’t throw out the records for this one. Canisius (13-7, 6-3) has won three straight and four of six, good for a third place tie with Rider in the MAAC standings. Everyone is in pursuit of Niagara (12-8, 8-1), which leads by a game over Loyola (Md.) and Iona. But the Purple Eagles, winners of five straight, can’t afford to look past the Griffs.
“We’ve always have a ton of respect for Canisius, but even more so this year,” Niagara coach Joe Mihalich said. “I was one of the guys who was saying all summer long when people were talking about Manhattan, Loyola and Iona and I said, ‘Wait a minute now, Canisius has as much talent as anybody.’ ”
But the series has a distinct shade of purple. Niagara has won four straight, five of the last six, eight of the last 11 and 17 of the last 20 against the Golden Griffins, dating back to the 2002-03 season. Canisius’ last win in this series came Jan. 28, 2011 at home, 69-54.
This season, first-year coach Jim Baron put together a veteran team obliged to atone for last spring, when it finished a wretched 5-25 and 1-17 in conference play.
“We’ve come a long way in a short time, winning only one league game last year and now seeing where we’re at overall,” Baron said.
But it wasn’t as if MAAC observers pegged the Purple Eagles for greatness, either.
“They’re probably one of the hottest teams in the league that we’ve played,” Baron said. “They’re a good basketball team. They’re playing with a lot of chemistry and a lot of confidence. They have great balance and Joe is a terrific coach.”
It’s hard to tell the difference between the teams. Both are perimeter oriented, up-tempo teams that feast off three-pointers. Niagara is second in the MAAC in scoring (74.4) while Canisius is third (73.2).
“You will see a track meet,” Washington said. “It will be a lot of racing.”
Yet both credit their recent success to defense. Canisius has upped the ante, holding its last three opponents to just 51.3 points with a rebounding edge of 109-87. The turning point was a 97-87 loss to Iona on Jan. 13.
“Our offense is going to come, that’s natural for a lot of us, but we have to get out in transition and get some stops and get some rebounds,” said Canisius junior guard Billy Baron, the team’s leader in points (16.4) and assists (5.6). “It’s vital for us.”
During Niagara’s five-game win streak, only one opponent has scored over 65 points.
“Our defense is a lot better than it was last year and so is our competitiveness,” said sophomore guard Juan’ya Green, who was a rebound shy of a triple double in Friday’s win at Siena with 19 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds.
The key for Canisius will be controlling the tempo. As much as the Golden Griffins like to run, Niagara is lethal at filling the lane and converting easy baskets. Green, the MAAC Freshman of the Year last season, has elevated his game to the point where he is a legitimate Player of the Year candidate, while sophomore Antoine Mason is third in the league in scoring (18.4).
Niagara will focus its defenders on the perimeter trio of Billy Baron, the conference leader in assists, Washington (13.0 ppg.) and senior Isaac Sosa (12.7). Billy Baron likes to find Washington and Sosa in the corners for jumpers with clean-up duties going to Chris Manhertz (8.9 rpg., second in the MAAC) and Jordan Heath, who is second in the league in field-goal percentage.