Tonight’s Canisius-Niagara game sold out more than 48 hours in advance and one can hardly fault Golden Griffs fans for getting to the box office early. Because what they’re about to witness hasn’t taken place since the year after John Beilein coached his final game at Canisius, since before Joe Mihalich ever strolled his first sideline on Monteagle Ridge.
The last time Canisius went into a Niagara game leading its rival in the standings while also possessing a winning conference record?
A look through the schools media guides says that would be December.
The role reversal that has Canisius at 12-7 overall and 6-2 in the MAAC to Niagara’s 5-14, 2-6 is one of the subplots ready to play out before those who shoehorn their way into the Koessler Athletic Center tonight. There’s also the matter of the national scoring race. Niagara junior guard Antoine Mason tops the country at 27.6 points a game to the 23.1 average of Canisius senior guard Billy Baron. Only Creighton’s Doug McDermott (24.8) stands between them.
“They’re both great players,” said Canisius coach Jim Baron. “They’re both having great years.”
“He’s doing a great job,” Billy Baron said of Mason. “He can shoot it from the outside and he can bully his way in there. He’s got a big body, and we got some big bodies as well. Chris Perez is a big body himself, and he’s going to be ready for that matchup.”
If the top scorers come close to canceling each other out the burden falls to the supporting casts. Canisius has center Jordan Heath (11.5) and Perez (10.5) averaging double figures on the season, while freshman Zach Lewis has been going at a 16.0 clip since entering the starting lineup four games ago.
Niagara ranks 62nd nationally in scoring at 77.5 points a start but has no one outside Mason averaging double figures. He’s ranks first nationally in field goals made (190), field-goal attempts (356), free throws made (176) and free-throw attempts (232). Next on the Niagara scoring list are freshman Ramone Snowden at 9.1 and senior Marvin Jordan at 9.0. Jordan has been a thorn for Canisius during his career and has averaged 20.6 points in three career visits to the KAC.
Scoring points rarely has been a concern over the years for the Purple Eagles. What’s troubled first-year coach Chris Casey is their defense. Niagara ranks 342nd in the country (out of 345) in points allowed (84.3), 332nd in field-goal percentage defense (48.6) and 322nd in rebounding margin (minus-5.5) after being manhandled on the glass by national leader Quinnipiac their last game out.
Does any of it matter? Who knows. It’s often been said you can throw out the records when these two rivals get together. For the first time in a long time it’s Niagara, winner of 18 of the last 22 in the series, hoping that’s the case.