SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Only a couple of weeks ago, Western New York fans had visions of Canisius and Niagara meeting in the MAAC Tournament final for the first time. Both of our teams were relevant for once, just like the good old days of college basketball in the Aud.
Well, so much for that idea. Iona had an altogether different vision. Lest we forgot, this was a team that had made the NCAAs as a rare MAAC at-large team a year ago and nearly upset Brigham Young in the first round.
The Gaels were a seasoned and dangerous tournament team, which both of our squads discovered over the weekend at the MassMutual Center. One day after taking out Canisius, Iona sent Niagara on its way back west on Interstate 90, ending the Purple Eagles’ NCAA dreams with a 79-73 defeat on Sunday afternoon.
In the end, it was like so many disheartening MAAC tournaments of the past. Canisius and Niagara wound up on the same side of the bracket. For the 11th year in a row, the Griffs didn’t even reach the semifinals. And Niagara, the regular-season champion and No. 1 seed, went down in all-too familiar fashion.
When you’ve been at this for more than 20 years, you tend to see history repeat itself. And I have seen this sad story line played out more times than I care to recall over the years. Local, guard-oriented team comes in with high hopes and gets exposed by a team with a superior inside game.
As they had against Canisius, the Gaels dominated Niagara on the boards, had a big advantage at the free-throw line and prevented the Purple Eagles from establishing a consistent inside attack. It’s hard to win a tournament with perimeter shooting. It’s hard to win a game, period.
Niagara was cold from behind the three-point arc. It didn’t stop them from firing away. They went 7 of 33 on threes (and 21 for 36 inside the arc). The scene was reminiscent of the 2009 MAAC title game in Albany, when they shot 9 for 37 from three-point range in a loss to Siena.
“Sure,” said coach Joe Mihalich. “I’ll be staring at the ceiling tonight, thinking about a thousand different things we could have done. That will be one of them. We could have gone inside a little more. You know what else we could have done? We could have made some of those shots.
“I thought we had some pretty good looks for guys who can make shots,” Mihalich said, “and we didn’t knock them down.”
While he’s staring at the ceiling, Mihalich might be wondering where he can get a quality big man. Devon White, his 6-foot-8 center, was a one-year transfer from La Salle. White, hampered by foul trouble and generally slovenly play, was barely a factor here.
Mihalich starts four guards. It’s entertaining and effective when the shots are falling. The Eagles went 13-5 in the MAAC with a bunch of freshmen and sophomores. Even Mihalich said he doesn’t understand how they did it. But when you’re too perimeter-oriented, it catches up to you.
Rebounding and post defense become magnified in March. It’s true at every level. Some very good Duke teams have been upset because they relied on guards and were soft inside. It’s hard to finesse your way to a title.
Usually, some big man will show you a more efficient way to advance. Iona’s 6-8 David Laury was that man. Laury had 20 points and 17 rebounds against Niagara. He was 7 for 12 from the field, 6 for 7 from the foul line. That’ll trump all those “good looks” from three every time.
Taaj Ridley, a 6-7 forward, scored 16 points, twice his average. There always seems to be a secondary big man who does that when Canisius or Niagara exits the MAAC Tournament. That’s 36 points from the two big guys.
It might have been different if Juan’ya Green, the Purple Eagles’ all-league guard, had been in a shooting rhythm. Green missed all seven of his three-pointers, most of them badly. But the main job of a point guard and leader is getting good shots for other people, presumably near the hoop.
When you lack reliable front-court scorers, it’s difficult to strike a balance.
“Yeah, it is,” Green said. “We shoot a lot of threes regardless. We have a lot of three-point shooters who make shots and a lot of playmakers who can drive to the lane and kick out for threes. So it is a little harder, but I think my teammates can do it.”
Still, history shows it’s a fragile strategy. Mihalich has a young, talented team. He has everyone but White back next season. All that perimeter talent will be a year older. They’ll be one of the favorites again. But it’ll be hard to win this tournament without a strong presence inside.
“What’s exciting,” Mihalich said, “is they can get better, all of them.”
He looked across the interview dais to Green and Antoine Mason, who were both all-MAAC first-team players as sophomores, and T.J. Cline, a 6-8 backup forward who was on the all-freshman team.
They’ll be good and they’ll play at a fast, exciting tempo and be fun to watch, like all good Mihalich teams. But the quality big man has become a rarity, an afterthought. A Juan Mendez comes along now and then, but it’s generally a perimeter program, where guards rule.
It’s fun to watch when everything is clicking. Then, inevitably, the three-point shooters go cold, and it’s time to go home.