The Niagara County Community College men’s basketball team is off to its best start in more than 40 years, yet players and coaches went home for the holidays with a sour taste in their mouths.
After rolling off 12 straight wins to start the season, the Thunderwolves were ranked No. 5 in the National Junior College Athletic Association Division III poll before losing to then-No. 3 Community College of Beaver County on Dec. 14 at the Genesee Tournament.
NCCC bounced back the next day with a buzzer-beating win over Community College of Rhode Island and entered the midyear break ranked 10th in the country.
“After being undefeated for so long, it felt bad just saying 13-1 to the guys, even though it’s a terrific record,” coach Bill Beilein said.
“These guys are hungry to reach No. 1 at some point in the season.”
The last time NCCC won that many games to start the season was in 1977, when Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Famer Dan Bazzani coached the Frontiersmen to 26 straight victories before a loss in the junior college national title game.
The Thunderwolves have come a long way in the five years Beilein has been the coach. NCCC won an average of eight games in the eight seasons prior to his arrival, and celebrated its 11-10 mark in Beilein’s debut year.
Beilein, the nephew of University at Michigan coach John Beilein, has increased his win total in each of the past four seasons and believes this year’s team is capable of winning the regional title and competing for a national championship.
“We have guys who are winners, guys who are tough physically and a little bit bigger and bulkier than just about everyone we have played,” Beilein said.
In its 13 victories, NCCC has outscored opponents by an average of 22 points with a rotation that goes 10 deep.
And the Thunderwolves are about to get deeper, with two top recruits becoming eligible for the second semester and just one reserve player failing to keep his grades high enough to continue playing.
“Our depth of talent is better than it’s ever been, and our academic retention has gotten us to this point,” Beilein said.
In his first season, Beilein lost 11 players to academic ineligibility at midseason. The next year he lost six players, followed by four in 2012 and two last season.
“With the chemistry we are trying to build, we know we have to keep kids on track academically, and we can’t let them fall behind early,” Beilein said.
On the floor, NCCC has been led by Eli Jones, a 6-foot-4 freshman forward from Fairport, who is averaging 21 points per game.
Jordan Street, a 6-6 center from Niagara Falls, has anchored the Thunderwolves in the middle.
“Jordan has been phenomenal as a sophomore,” Beilein said. “His size and dominance in the paint has led us to some victories.”
NCCC returns to the floor Jan. 7 at home against Lakeland Community College. The second-semester games will be mostly against fellow Western New York Athletic Conference and Region III opponents who Beilein said are also better than ever.
“Depth-wise, the conference is much tougher than it was before,” Beilein said. “There’s about five teams that have a chance to win this thing. Our goal is to be that team.”