They could have told Joe Mihalich he was playing the Miami Heat in the first round of the NIT and Niagara’s enthusiastic coach would have savored the challenge. His Purple Eagles are young. They’re precocious. They’re building toward next season and the season after that, so the tougher the competition in preparation for the trials ahead the better off they’ll be in the long run.
Mihalich loves portraying his one-senior team as overachievers for having captured an NIT berth by winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular-season title. And they’ll certainly have to overachieve in a big way to knock off Maryland in College Park in tonight’s first round of the NIT (7 p.m., ESPN2, Radio 1520 AM).
“Without a doubt we’re the underdogs,” Mihalich said. “We’re playing maybe the fifth- or sixth-place ACC team in their building. But that’s OK. We like that. We’ve been the underdogs all year long. It’s kind of something we’ve taken a shine to.”
Maryland (22-12, 8-10) finished seventh in the ACC and was 12-1 against non-ACC competition with a loss to Kentucky in the season opener. The Terps have beaten current No. 7 Duke twice and No. 4 Miami once. And if there’s a stat that has to make Niagara shudder it’s this: Maryland ranks third in the nation in rebounding, a strength that magnifies the challenge facing Niagara’s four-guard offense.
With the exception of Notre Dame, the Purple Eagles (19-13) haven’t seen a team close to Maryland’s stature. Ten players average at least 12 minutes. Dez Wells, a 6-foot-5 sophomore swingman, leads at 13.1 points per game.
The Terps have seven players 6-8 or taller, topped by 7-1 Alex Len of the Ukraine. He’s second in scoring at 12 points per game, first in rebounds at 7.9 and averages just under two blocks.
If Wells sounds familiar, it should. He started 32 games as a freshman for the Xavier team that lost to St. Bonaventure in the championship game of the 2012 Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament. Wells was expelled from Xavier for a nonbasketball issue. A grand jury declined to press the issue and the prosecutor criticized Xavier’s handling of the matter.
Wells chose to transfer to Maryland and won his appeal with the NCAA enabling him to play immediately. He was a late season standout and broke out with 30 points in the upset of Duke in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament. He averaged 22.0 points in three games and made first-team all tournament.
Like Niagara, Maryland is young. Of its six leading scorers, two are freshman and three are sophomores. Only two seniors see significant playing time for coach Mark Turgeon, who played at Kansas and was head coach at Wichita State and Texas A&M. This is his second season in College Park after succeeding long-time coach Gary Williams.
“I think it’s going to be a great experience,” said Antoine Mason, Niagara’s scoring leader and a first-team all-MAAC guard. “I think what’s going to help us is when we played Notre Dame. I realize how good a team can be and you can’t take any time off. So that’s going to help us.”
“It’s win or we got to hang our jerseys,” Mason said. “And I don’t fell like hanging our jerseys yet.”