Up until about a week ago Niagara’s final regular-season road trip looked like easy pickings.
Manhattan was bad. Marist was worse. You call that a road trip? It looked more like spring break.
But one rule has held firm in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference this season: Just when you have it all figured out, rest assured you’ve figured out nothing.
Marist, which had lost 12 of 13, caught everybody’s attention with Friday night’s triple-overtime victory at Iona and validated its rebirth with Sunday’s win over Loyola. Manhattan had lost eight of 10 before striking for wins in three of its next four, two of those against teams in the upper half of the conference – Rider and Canisius.
Suddenly Niagara’s advantageous end to its road schedule is recast as a daunting challenge, one made all the more demanding by the uncertainty concerning leading scorer Antoine Mason’s ankle sprain. He strolled through warmups against the Griffs on Sunday but, for the second straight game, never left the bench.
The upsets engineered by Marist and Manhattan are the reason Niagara, at 10-4, hits the road this week still holding a one-game advantage over 9-5 Canisius, Loyola and Iona. The Purple Eagles also have the benefit of knowing something has to give among its closest pursuers. Canisius plays at Loyola Friday night and Loyola has to visit Iona on March 1.
Coach Joe Mihalich made a point of saying that despite its slide Niagara remains the envy of the conference. Everyone else would gladly trade places with the Purple Eagles heading down the stretch. Only Niagara has total control over who finishes first and secures the guaranteed NIT bid that goes with winning the conference.
First up is a Marist team that has been transformed. It happens a lot at the mid-major level. Big men who look like they’ve plateaued in terms of their development suddenly blossom late in their junior year. Adam Kemp, the Red Foxes’ 6-foot-10 center, has been that guy.
Kemp had shown fleeting signs of latent ability during the course of the season. He scored in double figures nine times but never went for more than 14. Then somebody flipped the switch. In the two games against Iona and Loyola, Kemp totaled 52 points, 29 rebounds and nine blocks while shooting 17 of 24 from the field. It was as if Rik Smits reappeared in Marist red.
“Let’s give credit where credit’s due; Kemp played a monstrous game,” said Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos.
Free throws also killed Loyola in that 69-64 defeat. The Greyhounds went 12 of 26 from the stripe and just 7 of 17 in the second half.
“Anytime you go 12 of 26 from the free-throw line on the road, you’re not going to be successful,” Patsos said.
Manhattan might well be in the title mix if not for the injury that ended the season of star guard George Beamon after just four games. The Jaspers (6-7) tried to offset the loss by playing some of the MAAC’s better defense and are breaking through now that they’re managing an offensive flow. They’ll be one of those underlying tough outs in the MAAC Tournament,
Niagara is at Marist on Friday night and completes the trip at Manhattan on Sunday.
Back to back
BN Big 4 Player of the Week: Canisius guard Billy Baron wrapped up the honor for a second straight week when he went into the Gallagher Center on Sunday and blistered Niagara for a career-high 33 points. In two games that included the road loss at Manhattan, Baron averaged 23.5 points and went 14 of 15 from the free-throw line.
The question is whether the Griffs can make a serious postseason run while continuing to exclude the low post from the offense. Starting big men Jordan Heath and Chris Manhertz had eight field goals last week, four of them off offensive rebounds. The others came off assists from Harold Washington (twice), Alshwan Hymes and Reggie Groves. In other words, in two games Baron – the primary ball-handler – didn’t have a single assist on baskets by the Griffs’ starting big men.
On the flip side, the Griffs now lead the country in three-pointers made (237) and treys per game (9.5).
Canisius beat Loyola, 91-79, on Jan. 31. The Griffs conclude their final MAAC road swing Saturday at Saint Peter’s (3-11). They’ll play the Peacocks again on Feb. 28.
An NIT team a year ago, La Salle is thinking NCAA berth after a 16-6 start that includes victories over the Atlantic 10’s celebrated newcomers, Butler and VCU. The Explorers, who will visit the Reilly Center on Wednesday night, are tied for fourth in the A-10 at 6-3 and one game outside the three-way tie for first among Butler, VCU and Saint Louis.
Key for the Explorers has been the play of guard Tyrone Garland, a Virginia Tech transfer and Philly native who became eligible in mid-December. He’s third on the team in scoring at 12.4 points.
Bona (11-11, 4-5) is coming off a 67-61 win at Rhode Island fueled by Eric Mosley’s career-high 21 points. Bona finishes up the week at Richmond (14-10, 4-5) on Saturday.
All dressed up ...
... and nowhere to go. That sums up the plight of the Toledo Rockets, who are tied for first in the Mid-American Conference West at 7-3 but are ineligible for postseason play (and the MAC Tournament) because of academic probation. Still, the Rockets have one of the league’s premier talents in 6-4 guard Rian Pearson (18.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and will look to extend a five-game winning streak Wednesday night at UB’s Alumni Arena. Pearson had 26 points and eight boards in UB’s 72-65 win over the Rockets last season.
They all count for the Bulls (9-15, 4-6). With Toledo extracted from the mix, UB’s in a three-way tie for fifth in the overall MAC standings with the top five finishers receiving byes into the Cleveland portion of the conference tourney.
UB concludes the week Saturday at Miami, which is last in the East at 3-7 but scored a 58-57 win over the Bulls on Jan. 12.