Local hoops fans will be offered a taste of March tonight at First Niagara Center with a doubleheader in which all four teams carry a bit of momentum.
The opener pits Niagara (2-8) against Davidson (4-5) at 6 p.m. followed by Big 4 rivals Canisius (5-3) against the University at Buffalo (4-2) immediately following. The games are a NCAA mandated test run for when the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference hosts the NCAA Tournament second and third rounds March 20-22.
Canisius (5-3), winner of four of five, began MAAC play with back-to-back wins last weekend over Saint Peter’s and Siena at home. While the Golden Griffins averaged 87.5 points in the victories, Canisius coach Jim Baron was more impressed with his team’s defense especially from senior guard Chris Perez.
The Stetson transfer held Saint Peter’s Desi Washington to two points in Friday night’s 82-67 triumph and came back Sunday to contain Siena’s Rob Poole to nine points in a 93-78 win.
“I thought Chris did a really good job with that and the rest of the guys followed what we did defensively,” Baron said.
Canisius will need more of the same to handle UB’s backcourt of Joshua Freelove, Jarod Oldham, Jarryn Skeete and Shannon Evans off the bench. Skeete and Evans scored 17 points each in the Bulls’ 78-73 win over St. Bonaventure on Saturday.
“They’re guards are terrific, they can really score the ball,” Baron said. “They can shoot it, they can take it off the dribble and they’re very quick.”
Then there’s senior Javon McCrea, who is averaging 16.8 points and 9.3 rebounds. Baron calls McCrea one of the best big men Canisius will face.
“I think he’s a potential pro and reminds me a lot of Anthony Mason, who played with the Knicks, with how he handles the ball and how he scores the ball,” Baron said. “The one thing he needs to do is increase his shooting but he’s very good. I’ve followed him from high school to where he’s at now, and I’ve seen how he’s developed. He’s a great player.”
Of course UB, which has won its last four, has to deal with senior guard Billy Baron, a 19.9 point per game scorer, who scored 21 points with 13 assists, five rebounds and two steals against Siena.
“He’s got a reputation as a scorer but he’s coming off a game where he had 13 assists,” UB coach Bobby Hurley said. “They put you in a bind because they have big guys who can really extend the defense and shoot. He does a good job of dissecting the pick and roll and he finds a way of finding your weak spot in the defense. He looks great on film and he’s having a terrific year so we have to be aware and focused on him.”
After losing seven straight the Purple Eagles (2-8) erased a 12-point deficit with five minutes remaining and shocked Saint Peter’s last Sunday, 61-56. Antoine Mason scored a season-high 35 points in the game and at 29.4 points a game, the junior guard from Queens continues to lead the nation in scoring.
“He did a good job on Sunday, I thought, at picking his spots and finding ways to get involved and finding ways to involve other guys,” Niagara coach Chris Casey said.
“We didn’t score the ball well in the first half but we scored 46 in the second half and I thought we did a better job defensively and a lot of that was him.”
Davidson became a national darling during the remarkable three-year Stephen Curry era which including two NCAA Tournament berths and a spot in the Elite Eight in 2008. The Wildcats didn’t become vulnerable once the All-American point guard turned pro following the 2008-09 season in large part because of coach Bob McKillop, now in his 25th year.
Davidson is 89-50 overall and 54-18 in the Southern Conference since Curry left. Last year, the Wildcats finished 17-1 in the SoCon and lost to eventual East Regional finalist Marquette by a point in the second round of the NCAAs.
“You know that they are going to be very well coached, McKillop’s record speaks for itself, and you know they’re going to play extremely hard,” Casey said. “He is extremely well thought of in the coaching community. He’s one of those guys where you say, ‘great coach, better person.’”
Davidson started the season losing three in a row before scoring an upset over Georgia. The Wildcats suffered back-to-back losses to Clemson and New Mexico but have won their last three, including an overtime win over Charlotte.
The Wildcats have been without leading scorer De’Mon Brooks, the SoCon Preseason Player of the Year, in the last four games because of a knee injury. The 6-7 senior forward, who is averaging 16.8 points and 6.4 rebounds, is listed as day-to-day.
In Brooks’ absence, junior guard Tyler Kalinoski has increased his scoring average from 10.9 points for 15.5.
“They’re going to have five guys on the floor who can shoot the ball at all times,” Casey said. “They’ll move the ball well and run some of that motion offense and everyone can dribble, pass and shoot it. We’re going to have to be very aware defensively and alert.”