Chris Casey is not into prognostication, which is good considering what the defending MAAC regular season champions have endured since he replaced the wildly successful Joe Mihalich as Niagara’s coach in late April.
Disrupting what had been a tailor-made NCAA Tournament team, All-MAAC guard Juan’ya Green departed along with his close friend and leading rebounder Ameen Tanksley, following Mihalich to Hofstra. With a dearth of big men available, T.J. Cline all of the sudden became a recruiting commodity and he eventually transferred to Richmond. Even the man who hired Casey, Athletic Director Tom Crowley, was fired before the first jump ball.
Casey’s new house in Lewiston is a bit of a maze and most mornings he finds himself bumping into boxes in the dark. It’s an apt description of his team: Bumping into each other until things are sorted out.
“We’re feeling our way with learning each other, learning who does what and how to play together,” Casey said. “I like what we’re doing in terms of our effort and coachability and our willingness to play hard and play for each other.”
Purple Eagle fans can breathe easier because the exciting brand of fastbreak basketball that made Niagara so entertaining in the Mihalich era will remain.
“I don’t know if we’re faster or slower than last year but I want to be fast,” Casey said. “We’re working really hard to try and score in transition and if not, be able to get into offense quickly and not allow defenses to collect themselves.”
Niagara isn’t totally in despair with the return of leading scorer Antoine Mason, a 6-3 junior who was a first-team All-MAAC selection as a sophomore. Mason and senior guard Marvin Jordan, who could end his career as the program’s career leader in three-pointers made, will serve as captains.
Casey likes the progress from sophomore guard Rayvon Harris, who redshirted last season, and junior forward Joe Thomas, who took a step back last season after showing promise late as a freshman. Sophomore guard Tahjere McCall expects to take on an expanded role but has been hampered by a leg injury that will sideline him for the first few weeks of the season.
Keys to success
For better or worse, the newcomers are being thrown into the fire immediately and how well they respond could determine Niagara’s fortunes for this season.
Freshman Cameron Fowler, a transfer from Iowa State, should get the nod at the point, although Brooklyn native Wesley Myers, another freshman, isn’t far behind. There’s 6-5 freshman Ramone Snowden, a versatile player who will spend most of his time in the frontcourt, while senior Marcus Ware, a transfer from Monmouth with one season of eligibility remaining, gives Niagara a physical presence inside.
It would be a neat trick if Casey could wave a magic wand and give all his newcomers another 30 games of experience. “We need them to play more like sophomores and juniors,” he said.
Casey says he’s “not a zone guy,” so Niagara will primarily play man-to-man defense.
A name to remember is Dominique Reid, who will likely redshirt as he recovers from a knee injury that limited him to five games as a senior. The 6-8 Reid has the ball-handling skills to play in the backcourt and a sweet shooting touch.
The Purple Eagles get Seton Hall right off the bat as part of the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament, which includes consecutive games against University of South Carolina Upstate, Western Carolina and Kent State, all at Kent State. Sandwiched between is a home game against UB. Road games at Penn, Northwestern State and Arkansas State mean the Purple Eagles don’t return home until Dec. 6 against Siena.
Niagara isn’t in total disarray with the return of Mason, the league’s scoring leader from a year ago, and Jordan, who has 57 career starts. But the availability of McCall, who was supposed to give the Eagles a strong backcourt, is in question. That leaves Casey with several inexperienced parts and too many questions to expect Niagara to finish any higher than .500.