Their records indicate Canisius holds a distinct edge over Niagara as the two ancient rivals prepare to renew acquaintances on Wednesday night in the Koessler Athletic Center. But the topsy-turvy nature of the early Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference season suggests the Griffs best beware.
A glimpse at the standings might lead one to believe the MAAC is unfolding pretty much as expected. Manhattan, Iona and Canisius were placed 1-2-3 in the preseason poll and sit in a four-way tie for first at 6-2 with newcomer Quinnipiac, picked seventh, having joined their company. Truth is, the MAAC has been the most unpredictable of the three conferences involving Big 4 teams.
The strong rarely give way to the weak in the Atlantic 10 and Mid-American. The A-10 has three unbeatens and four one-loss teams. Only one of them has sustained a defeat outside the top grouping and that came when St. Bonaventure beat Richmond on Jan. 8. Chances are the Spiders aren’t long for the upper echelon anyway. Their next four games are all against teams in the top half (UMass, Saint Joseph’s, Saint Louis, VCU).
Things are shaping up the same way in the Mid-American Conference, where there are five one-loss teams: UB, Akron, Ohio U., Toledo and Eastern Michigan. Only Toledo has suffered a loss outside the top grouping (to 2-2 Western Michigan).
Then there’s the MAAC. Canisius moved into first place by itself Saturday when Fairfield picked up its first conference win by knocking off Manhattan. And the Griffs promptly surrendered sole possession of the lead Sunday by falling to 3-5 Monmouth, a team it beat by 20 a week earlier. The other Canisius setback came against 2-5 Marist. One of Quinnipiac’s losses is to 3-4 Saint Peter’s. Only Iona has avoided falling to a team outside the top grouping (the Gaels have been beaten by Canisius and Quinnipiac).
Nothing can ever be taken for granted in the Canisius-Niagara rivalry. The Purple Eagles won the conference last year but narrowly avoided a loss at the KAC when it was determined a would-be winner by Billy Baron came after the buzzer. The Griffs then stepped up two weeks later to take the rematch at the Taps, 77-70.
This year’s meetings bring forth the subplot of the national scoring race. Niagara’s Antoine Mason remains atop the heap although his advantage over Creighton’s Doug McDermott has been whittled to 27.6-24.9. Baron, meanwhile, jumped from sixth to third this past week at 23.1. He’s also tied for 56th in assists at 5.1.
Both the Griffs and the Purple Eagles will hit the halfway mark of the 20-game conference season this week. Niagara (5-14, 2-6) entertains Marist (5-12, 2-5) at 7 Friday night, and Canisius (12-7, 6-2) gets the Red Foxes at the KAC at 2 p.m. Sunday.
Other big 4 action
In terms of miles, UB faces its longest conference road trip out of the way this week, but it comes with two games less than 48 hours apart. The Bulls face Ball State (3-12, 0-4) at 8 Thursday night (Time Warner) in Muncie, Ind., then head to Dekalb, Ill., for a 2 p.m. Saturday tip-off against Northern Illinois (7-9, 1-3). These are the two West Division teams UB plays twice under the expanded 18-game conference schedule. The Bulls whacked NIU at Alumni, 67-46, on Jan. 8. They’re home to Ball State on Feb. 5.
St. Bonaventure still has no idea what’s its like to play anyone outside the A-10’s upper echelon. The Bonnies have yet to play a single two-loss team, and they face an A-10 unbeaten for the third time in four games when La Salle (11-6, 3-0) visits the Reilly Center for a 9 p.m. Wednesday start. It’ll be broadcast on the CBS College Sports Network. The Bonnies will finish up the week Saturday night in Pittsburgh against Duquesne (8-8, 1-3).
UB was just getting on a roll last season when senior point guard Jarod Oldham went down with a season-ending wrist injury that required surgery. He returned to a coaching change and a system change and it took him a while to rediscover the form that makes him one of the steadier offensive generals and one of the better backcourt defenders in the MAC.
“I was real anxious after the injury just to get back on the court and I was playing too fast,” Oldham said after Saturday’s win over Kent State. “Now I got my rhythm back.”
Next order of business for UB is to get Jarryn Skeete acclimated to his new role. Skeete had a solid freshman season after replacing the injured Oldham at the point. This season he’s primarily playing the 2 guard, and it’s been a struggle. He’s shooting just 28.3 percent from the field and is 10 for his last 44. The 19 points he hung on Eastern Michigan Jan. 11 marked the only time in the last eight games he’s scored more than five.
By the numbers
Baron had made 61 of his last 65 free throw attempts (93.8 percent) before the miss on the front end of the one-and-one with eight seconds left at Monmouth Sunday. Then the Hawks’ Andrew Nicholas came down and drained the winning three after making just six of his last 29 attempts from behind the arc. What are the odds of that ending?
UB enters the week ranked eighth in the country in three-point field goal percentage defense and 20th in blocks.
RPIs: St. Boanventure 83, UB 109, Canisius 161, Niagara 290.