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Back in the days of Calvin Murphy and Bob Lanier, freshman were ineligible for varsity duty. They could play in a scattering of freshman games but in essence they were reduced to three years of eligibility so they could better acclimate to college life. One can only imagine how many career points Lanier (2,067) or Murphy (2,548) would have scored had they arrived after the rule was changed.

Once freshman became eligible beginning in 1972, few made an immediate impact. They still had to acclimate to playing the game at a higher level. Al McGuire captured the thought of the times when he said, “The best thing about freshman is they eventually become sophomores.”

Evolution has rendered McGuire’s observation archaic. Players began jumping to the NBA right out of high school until the NBA put a stop to it. Now the best of the lot play a season of college ball and then head for the pros. But even less gifted freshman have long been rising up and playing significant roles in their debut seasons, and this year in particular the Big 4 is awash in impact rookies.

The latest case in point came Sunday in Canisius’s 101-91 loss to Iona. The Griffs were without senior forward Chris Manhertz, one of their mainstays on the defensive end and the boards. His absence resulted in 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman Phil Valenti entering the starting lineup. He responded with 15 points and nine rebounds while playing a career-high 36 minutes.

Thing is, Valenti’s effort hardly surprised. Although averaging just 18.7 minutes — a figure that’s been steadily on the rise — he went into Sunday with career highs of 16 points and 10 rebounds, totals that spoke to his capabilities.

“Phil was big time, especially that first half,” Billy Baron said after the Iona game. “He had 11, 4 and 4, and that’s really big to see Phil, just a freshman, doing that. He’s not playing like a freshman anymore. He grew up really fast and that’s what we need. It’s big for him and he’s going to be a X factor come tournament time.”

The newcomers still have their freshmen moments as they accumulate coveted experience. But their efforts have produced some great work and exposed even greater potential. Besides Valenti, here are the Big 4 frosh who have opened eyes this season:

Shannon Evans, guard, University at Buffalo: The most electric of the newcomers. Exceptional floor vision and passing ability and he can shoot it. Averaging 26.6 minutes, 8.6 points and 3.1 assists with season highs of 19 points and seven assists.

Zach Lewis, guard, Canisius: Like Evans, he’s a true freshman. Lewis moved into the starting lineup a month ago and has hit double figures scoring in eight of those 10 games. Averaging 27.3 minutes, 9.9 points and 1.6 assists all told. Has season highs of 25 points and four assists.

Ramone Snowden, swing, Niagara: The retooling on Monteagle Ridge has created opportunity and the 6-5 Snowden has steadily tracked upward. Averages 25.4 minutes, 8.5 points and 5.4 rebounds with season highs of 23 points and 15 boards.

Wesley Myers, guard, Niagara: Has started in stretches when Tahjere McCall was out injured and Marvin Jordan away for personal reasons. Averaging 20.1 minutes and 5.7 points. Seasons best have been 16 points and four assists.

The week ahead

MAC: It’s looking like a five-team race for the four byes into the conference tournament, with the top two advancing straight to the semifinals and the next two to the quarters. UB (13-7, 7-3) is tied for third with Ohio U. and Western Michigan a game behind co-leaders Akron and Toledo. The sixth-place teams are two games behind the Bulls.

UB went 2-0 last week with Javon McCrea receiving East Division player of the week honors. He averaged 22 points and 17 boards. The Bulls play an all-East Division schedule from here on. They’re at Miami (9-12, 5-5) Wednesday night and host Ohio U. (17-6, 7-3) at 2:30 Saturday afternoon.

Hamburg native Blake McLimans, who opened the season with Miami as a graduate transfer from Michigan, left the team in early December for personal reasons related to a family illness.

MAAC: It’s Part II of the Canisius-Niagara rivalry Friday night at the Gallagher Center. The 9 p.m. start will be televised on ESPNU.

The 10th-place Purple Eagles (6-19, 3-11) played some of their best ball over the weekend in near upsets of Iona and Manhattan and are looking to split the season series after an 87-74 loss to the Griffs on Jan. 22. There is no bye advantage in the MAAC but there are more favorable seedings and Canisius (16-9, 10-4) continues to gun for one of those after losses to Manhattan and Iona dropped the Griffs into a tie for second.

The switch to a 9 p.m. start intensifies the weekend grind. Canisius plays at Siena and Niagara at Manhattan in 2 p.m. Sunday starts.

Atlantic 10: St. Bonaventure is 1-4 on the road in conference with the four defeats coming by a cumulative 15 points. The Bonnies (13-10, 3-6) carry a two-game losing streak into Wednesday night’s 9 p.m. start at Fordham (9-13, 2-7), then play at 6 p.m. Saturday at last-place George Mason (8-15, 1-8).

All 13 teams make it to the A-10 Tournament at the Barclays Center with the top four seeds advancing straight to the quarterfinals. The tournament opens with a 12-vs.-13 game on March 12. Two wins this week would pretty much assure Bona avoids the worst-case scenario.

Nationwide

Antoine Mason’s lead in the national scoring race is less than a single point now. Mason sits at 26.3 points per game with Creighton’s Doug McDermott up to 25.3 after averaging 28.5 in two games last week. Billy Baron holds down fifth at 23.6. … UB ranks fifth in defending the three, allowing opponents to connect at just 27.7 percent. Ohio State is No. 1 at 26.3,

Big 4 RPIs

St. Bonaventure 90, Canisius 102, UB 146, Niagara 289.

email: bdicesare@buffnews.com