Heading into his senior season, Matt Scott's versatility leads a Niagara team whose blend of experience and potential places them in discussion for a finish in top half of MAAC for first time since 2012-13. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)
The last time Niagara was viewed as a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference contender, the calendar displayed March, 2013.
To put that in perspective: Barack Obama had just begun his second and final term as President of the United States two months prior, Colin Kaepernick's star was as bright as it had ever been after taking the San Francisco 49ers within one touchdown of a Super Bowl championship, and Rick Pitino was about to embark on an emotionally charged national championship run with Louisville, the two scandals that eventually engulfed his Hall of Fame career nowhere on the horizon.
The Purple Eagles, led by head coach Joe Mihalich and sophomore point guard Juan'ya Green, a first team all-conference talent, won the MAAC regular season crown in a surprising league campaign that saw Niagara win ten of its first eleven conference games. The success carried over into the postseason, falling narrowly short against eventual MAAC champion Iona in the tournament semifinals before battling Maryland in the National Invitation Tournament later that March.
Since then, though, the program has had to rebuild. Mihalich soon left for Hofstra, bringing Green and swingman Ameen Tanksley with him to Long Island and taking the Pride to a pair of postseason appearances shortly thereafter. In his place, Chris Casey was left with a barren cupboard after making the jump from Division II LIU Post, and has struggled to make headway within the MAAC over his first four years on Monteagle Ridge, winning only 32 games and finishing no better than an eighth-place tie in league play.
This year has a different feel, however. With the core of seniors from last season having graduated and Niagara returning everyone from last year's 10-23 roster, the Purple Eagles suddenly have one of the more experienced units in the MAAC. Add to that a tremendous amount of upside in a league where uncertainty is abound in more places than one, and Casey has not just a deceptively strong dark horse on his hands, but also a legitimate contender to give projected conference favorites Iona and Manhattan a run for their money this winter.
"I expect us to take another step forward," Casey confidently projected when assessing the outlook for his Niagara team this season. "I think we have a chance to be good, I think we have a chance to be one of the better teams in the league, and I think we have a chance to win the league and go to the NCAA Tournament. We've got a bunch of guys back, we finally have some experience coming back. Our guys have worked very hard over the summer. They're a good group, a unified group, and we're really looking forward to getting started this season."
"It's important with any team," Casey said of the newfound experience he possesses in droves, namely in the form of senior guards Matt Scott and Kahlil Dukes, as well as junior defensive stopper Chris Barton. "We haven't had any situations or any seasons where we've been able to bring a number of guys back. It's always been new guys, rebuild, rebuild. This year, we have a significant number of guys back, so it's invaluable. Before you get good at something, you have to go through it, go through the highs and lows of it and know what it is, and I think that's where we're at right now."
Scott will be the most integral of Niagara's many pieces this season. As a junior, the stat-stuffer from Brooklyn averaged 17 points per game and supplemented his offense with seven rebounds and three assists per contest en route to earning third team all-MAAC honors. With one more season to make an even greater name for himself, the sky is the limit for the Purple Eagles' Swiss Army knife, and his coach is equally as bullish on his prospects.
"There's a lot of people that know what he does and how important he is to our team," said Casey when sizing up Scott's impact. "I expect that he's a Player of the Year candidate. He's got a chance to have a terrific senior year. He's as strong as he's ever been, and I expect him to have a big year for us."
Behind Scott and Dukes is where Niagara will pose perhaps its biggest advantage, with a supporting cast that accounts for some of the MAAC's greatest depth. The aforementioned Barton leads the way in that category,, with junior forwards Marvin Prochet and Dominic Robb anchoring the interior while James Towns and Dwayne Pow see an additional share of minutes in the backcourt for a team whose two exhibition games in Costa Rica last month gave Casey a glimpse of what he has in his arsenal this season.
"I think the biggest thing was we performed well," he said of Niagara's trip in August. "In the past, we've been in situations where we're new, not quite as experienced. We played well, we played extremely hard, and that was evident watching the games in Costa Rica, but quite frankly, I expected that. I expect us to be better because now we have a little bit more experience. There's going to be another move forward."
One year older, one year wiser, and more battle-hardened, the Purple Eagles descend on this year's MAAC season with tangible expectations, which can be an unknown variable for a team with not used to a high bar being set. The aura around Niagara, though, does not project that, as the confidence and realization of having been through the wars has brought them into an alert sense of where they stand in comparison to their conference brethren.
"My guys have always played hard," Casey said of his team. "We've always competed, we've always been right there in games. We needed to get to a point in the program where we had experience and we have enough pop for us to get over the hump in those types of games. We approached that in a couple of spots last year, but certainly not enough, and I think this year is the year to take advantage of that. That's the biggest thing that's different about last year."