Despite losing head coach Joe Mihalich and point guard Juan'ya Green to Hofstra, Chris Casey still has several key pieces on roster at Niagara for Purple Eagles to defend MAAC regular season title. (Photo courtesy of the Buffalo News)
Chris Casey may not have had any head coaching experience at the Division I level prior to being hired at Niagara this past April, but it hasn't changed his outlook on the coming season, nor his chances of defending the Purple Eagles' status as reigning regular season MAAC champions. In fact, where some may say that the team was gutted in the wake of former coach Joe Mihalich leaving for Hofstra and taking guard Juan'ya Green and swingman Ameen Tanksley with him, the Niagara roster is still quite formidable at first glance for this writer, with Casey retaining a core of players led by first team all-MAAC honoree Antoine Mason, not to mention Tahjere McCall and deadly outside shooter Marvin Jordan.
Earlier in the week, Niagara released their nonconference schedule, an 11-game slate featuring three home games and a neutral site game in Buffalo against Bob McKillop and Davidson, with several other favorable road matchups. Last night, we had the chance to break down the schedule with their new head coach, as well as get Casey's thoughts on the team he inherits, the style he intends to play, and even some memories of our time at St. John's University, (Casey was Norm Roberts' director of basketball operations and third assistant coach while this writer was a student and play-by-play announcer there) something you can see below:
Casey on Niagara's inclusion in the NABC Coaches vs. Cancer Classic: "I think it's got a lot of positives to it, Jaden. First, it puts you in a tournament atmosphere, and any time you can do that during the course of the year, it's going to help you prepare for the conference tournament at the end of the year. The preparation is quick, the games are one right after another, so it has a lot of similarities to the conference tournament, and I think it's going to help us in that regard. The other way it's going to help us is that it's quality opponents. We all know that the MAAC is a very, very challenging conference with a lot of good coaches and a lot of good players, so I think to prepare for the conference, you have to play some good teams out of conference, and go up against the competition."
Saturday, November 9th at Seton Hall: Niagara opens its season at the Prudential Center with this preliminary round game in the NABC Coaches vs. Cancer classic against Kevin Willard and the Pirates, and it should be a very competitive game for the Purple Eagles right out of the gate. Seton Hall is three years removed from Bobby Gonzalez having been dismissed, but his last recruit is still in South Orange; that being senior swingman Fuquan Edwin, who will enter this season as the face of the program. After a strong first year in the Big East, Gene Teague will look to build on his brute strength up front for the Pirates, while junior forward Brandon Mobley should be completely recovered from a surgically repaired shoulder that sacrificed the second half of his season last year. The arrival of Texas transfer Sterling Gibbs should also help clear up the point guard issues that plagued Seton Hall last season, with prized in-state recruit Jaren Sina also poised to make an impact. "Coach Willard has done a very good job at Seton Hall," Casey said of his first opponent as Niagara's head coach. "He's got somewhat of a veteran team coming back, Fuquan Edwin has proven himself as an outstanding Big East player, so it's going to be an extremely challenging game, especially on the road. We'll prepare for it like we do every other game, but it's going to be a great experience for our guys to go into Seton Hall; which is a quality program with very good coaching, to come in right away and see what we have."
Wednesday, November 13th vs. Buffalo: Bobby Hurley and the Bulls come into the Gallagher Center for the Purple Eagles' home opener against one of two MAAC teams that Buffalo is presently scheduled against at this time, with a matchup against Manhattan coming in December at the Barclays Center. Hurley inherits a team ready to compete in the Mid-American Conference, with leading scorer and rebounder Javon McCrea leading a promising young group that includes rising star point guard Jarryn Skeete and sharpshooting Virginia expatriate Will Regan, who shot 42 percent from three-point range last season.
Thursday, November 21st at Kent State: The first of three subregional Coaches vs. Cancer games in Ohio comes against Rob Senderoff's Golden Flashes, who come off a 21-win season and an appearance in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, where they lost to Loyola and former coach Jimmy Patsos, now at Siena. Leading scorers Chris Evans and Randal Holt have graduated, leaving junior shooting guard Kris Brewer as the top returning offensive option while 6-5 combo forward Darren Goodson is on the precipice of a breakout season as a senior.
Friday, November 22nd vs. USC Upstate: The Spartans come back this season after a 16-17 campaign with all five starters presently returning to a team that shot 35 percent from three-point range and only yielded 67 points per game to their opponents on average while scoring 70. Senior swingman Torrey Craig returns on the heels of a breakout season that saw him average 17 points and nearly seven rebounds per contest, while junior shooter Ty Greene will once again be his running mate in the backcourt. Senior forward and burgeoning big man Ricardo Glenn, the Spartans' leading rebounder last season, could be a double-double per night player this year even before Atlantic Sun play begins.
Saturday, November 23rd vs. Western Carolina: Next up for Niagara on the schedule is another team that returns all five starters, as the Catamounts (one of only two schools in Division I with that nickname, Vermont being the other) are intent on moving up the ladder in the Southern Conference. Senior guard Trey Sumler, Western Carolina's leading scorer last season, could be a dark horse to average 20 points per game, with 6-8 forward Tawaski King back for his final campaign after ending 2012-13 as the Catamounts' leading rebounder.
Tuesday, November 26th at Penn: Niagara's last game before Thanksgiving will feature a trip to the iconic Palestra to take on a Quakers team that is rebuilding after losing guards Zack Rosen and Tyler Bernardini in recent years. The good news for head coach Jerome Allen is that all three of his double-figure scorers from last season are back, led by senior forward Fran Dougherty, who led Penn in scoring and rebounding last season. Senior Miles Cartwright and sophomore Tony Hicks return to anchor the backcourt, with 6-8 wing Henry Brooks and 6-11 sophomore Darien Nelson-Henry rejoining Dougherty inside as the Quakers contend in the Ivy League once again.
Saturday, November 30th at Northwestern State: The reigning Southland Conference champions return most of their productive bench last season for longtime head coach Mike McConathy, with sophomore point guard Jalan West leading the charge after a rookie season that saw him average over five assists per game in the Demons' uptempo style. West should start this season alongside 6-7 senior DeQuan Hicks, the team's leading scorer and rebounder despite only starting three games last year.
Tuesday, December 3rd at Arkansas State: The Red Wolves (formerly the Indians, as we were actually unaware of the nickname change until today) and head coach John Brady, who once led LSU to a Final Four, will attempt to maintain their competitive balance after a 19-12 campaign last season. Leading rebounder Brandon Peterson is gone, but senior shooting guard Ed Townsel remains after leading Arkansas State in scoring last season while also shooting 34 percent from three-point range. The Red Wolves also retain sophomore guard Cameron Golden and 6-7 brute Kendrick Washington, whose 275-pound frame will cause matchup problems in and out of the Sun Belt this season.
Wednesday, December 11th vs. Davidson: Bob McKillop comes to the First Niagara Center one year before joining the Atlantic 10, and this productive mid-major is showing no signs of letting up after their recent success has proven the Wildcats were not just a one-hit wonder after Stephen Curry guided them within a shot of the Final Four in 2008. The test for Davidson this year will be replacing three of its starters, but senior swingmen De'Mon Brooks and Chris Czerapowicz, the latter of whom shot 39 percent from long range for the Wildcats last season, will go a long way in picking up the slack. Sophomore sharpshooter Tyler Kalinoski should step into the starting lineup this year, and senior point guard Tom Droney returns for one more year as the team's "glue guy" who just breeds a winning attitude whenever he takes the court.
Saturday, December 21st vs. St. Bonaventure: Mark Schmidt and the Bonnies will face at least three MAAC teams this season before beginning Atlantic 10 play, with Iona and Siena being the others. Charlon Kloof and Matthew Wright provide this young team with experience from St. Bonaventure's 2012 NCAA Tournament run, as well as seven-footer Youssou Ndoye, who could be one of the better big men most of the nation has yet to hear of.
Sunday, December 29th vs. Brown: Mike Martin and the Bears retain the services of inside/outside senior duo Tucker Halpern and Sean McGonagill for one more season, while 6-9 Brazilian big man Rafael Maia looks to take the next step in becoming a walking double-double as he goes into his junior season. A challenge for Brown this season will be getting their role players to step up, as six freshmen are waiting in the wings for critical minutes on this up-and-coming squad.
Casey on the basketball atmosphere in western New York: "By all accounts, it's important to everybody. Those programs all have natural rivalries, and any time you can get rivalries in college basketball, you get some outstanding basketball games. I'm just looking forward to being in the mix with that. All the programs have experienced coaches and guys who have done a good job, and I'm looking forward to just playing those games. These are games we'll traditionally play every year, so I'm looking forward to experiencing college basketball in western New York."
On homecourt advantage and three early games at the Gallagher Center: "You'd love to play all your games at home if you could. We get a good crowd, we have a lot of supportive and vocally supportive fans, so any time we get in our own gym where we practice every day and we're comfortable, that's always a big plus, and I think we have some good matchups in that gym, especially with Buffalo coming in and Bonaventure coming in, and especially Canisius in the conference, so (we're) definitely looking forward to playing those home games at Niagara."
On his first three months since replacing Joe Mihalich, and how his new players have responded to him: "Well, the players have been outstanding. They're a very hard-working group, which I'm not surprised, (to see) Joe obviously did a very, very good job up here, had tremendous success, and I expected coming in that he would have left behind a group that works very hard. They've shown everything plus that, they've been great to work with, and I'm looking forward to getting to practice in September and getting our whole team on the floor. Joe left some great pieces. I think the thing that has to be done when putting the roster together is add to our depth, and add to our scoring ability, because we've lost some of that."
On similarities and differences between Antoine Mason and his brother, Anthony Mason Jr., whom Casey coached as an assistant at St. John's: "Both are terrific people. They're both outstanding basketball players, but more importantly, both terrific people, both great attitudes, both hard workers. Different games, you know, Anthony may be a little more athletic and a little bit more of a transition player, Antoine (is) very strong going to the basket, very physical, can really score the basketball, and does it very efficiently. So, their games may be slightly different, but the basis, the foundation that they both have, is the same: Great attitude, hard work, coachability, those are the things that are important to be a successful player."
On what to expect from a Chris Casey team: "Well, the foundation on anything has got to be what I just mentioned with the Mason brothers, it's going to be work ethic, terrific attitude, coachability, and the idea that it's about us, it's not about individuals. That has to be very, very apparent before you go on to anything else, before you go to offenses and defenses, so that's going to be our foundation. Offensively, we'd like to get up and down the floor and score points, we'll play a lot off ball screens, and defensively, we're going to be a man-to-man team. We're going to be a team that tries to get after you and turns over to help us get out in transition, and off the court, Jaden, we want to be students, we want to be successful, we want to be good citizens, we want to set an example to have that same work ethic and positive attitude that we exhibit on the basketball court. We want that to transcend into our campus personalities and our campus life."