Monday, April 28, 2014

A Year In Review: Niagara

Antoine Mason was one of few bright spots for Niagara, easing Chris Casey's transition to Division I head coach by leading nation in scoring most of season. (Photo courtesy of Big Apple Buckets)

As the offseason resumes, we'll try to keep it somewhat interesting by posting our delayed year in review pieces for the eleven teams that comprise the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, a league we have been extremely privileged to chronicle in depth over the past several seasons. Leading this series off is last year's regular season champion, which underwent a transition of sorts for the 2013-14 campaign.

Given the turn of events on Monteagle Ridge around this time last year, the success that had come to Niagara University in 2013 was something that was not going to be expected as the Purple Eagles attempted their encore. Gone was longtime head coach Joe Mihalich, who departed to replace Mo Cassara at Hofstra, bringing first team all-MAAC point guard Juan'ya Green and Philadelphia swingman Ameen Tanksley with him to Hempstead as Chris Casey entered the Division I head coaching realm with a solid supporting cast eager to step up, led by junior shooting guard Antoine Mason.

Mason embodied Casey's philosophy on the offensive side, one in which the coach insisted he would "like to get up and down the floor and score points" when discussing his intentions during the offseason before Niagara opened the doors to 2013-14 with an 11-point loss to Seton Hall in a game more notable for featuring 73 total fouls called within its 40 minutes. Only a 92-81 victory over Bobby Hurley and Buffalo kept Niagara from going through the first month of the year undefeated, but the Purple Eagles rebounded from a 1-7 start to win three of their next four games, including victories over Saint Peter's and eventual Southern Conference regular season champion Davidson, entering 2014 and the return of MAAC play at 4-9.

Losses in all but two of their games the rest of the way left Niagara at 6-25 entering the MAAC tournament in Springfield, where Casey's young team built a 24-point lead on two separate occasions against Marist before the Red Foxes willed their way back in a thrilling late night opening round game that the Purple Eagles needed all of Mason's 38 points to survive, escaping with a 78-76 victory before seeing their season come to an end two nights later against Quinnipiac.

All in all, despite a 7-26 record, Niagara played much better than their record let on in most instances, with Mason's 25.6 points per game; second in the nation behind only Doug McDermott after the New Rochelle native led the country for most of the year, nearly tripling the team's second-best output, a 9.7 mark from graduating sharpshooter Marvin Jordan.

"I think the thing that has to be done when putting the roster together," Casey told us last summer before he began his initial season at the helm in western New York, "is add to our depth and add to our scoring ability, because we've lost some of that."

Add to the depth, they did, in the form of freshmen Ramone Snowden and Wesley Myers, who complemented Mason well in Niagara's three-and four-guard sets alongside forward Joe Thomas and fifth-year senior Marcus Ware. Thomas will return next season along with Snowden and Myers, as will Rhode Island expatriate Rayvon Harris, with Iowa State transfer Cameron Fowler expected to fill the position vacated by Tahjere McCall, who was granted his release last month. Sophomore guard Emile Blackman, who played for Casey at LIU Post before joining him at Niagara, should also be an integral piece to the backcourt for a team who will make a jump toward the middle of the standings next season, led by a Player of the Year contender in Mason.

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