Graduations of Kahlil Dukes and Matt Scott have allowed for players like James Towns (above) to have a more instrumental role in maintaining Niagara's success this season. (Photo by The Buffalo News)
Last season, Niagara's upside and experience paid off, culminating in the Purple Eagles being invited to the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament for what was the first taste of postseason basketball for the program since 2013, when all-time winningest head coach Joe Mihalich brought it a regular season Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship and subsequent National Invitation Tournament berth before leaving for Hofstra shortly thereafter.
The rebuild inherited by his replacement, Chris Casey, a former Division II head coach and high-major assistant at St. John's before heading to Monteagle Ridge to spearhead the resurgence, was long and arduous en route to its payoff, which saw Kahlil Dukes and Matt Scott combine to average over 40 points per game in their senior seasons. Dukes added to his gaudy statistics with Co-Player of the Year honors in the MAAC, while Scott's late-season injury hamstrung what could have been a feel-good run through the conference tournament, and even after the two have graduated, the future remains very bright in Western New York.
"They're going to be missed, obviously," head coach Chris Casey said of his team's prospects without Dukes and Scott, arguably the two most integral pieces to any MAAC outfit last season. "But like I tell our guys, we're going to miss them, but we're not going to miss a beat. Every team's different, so I don't think you approach this by looking at it like, 'How do we replace these guys?' I think you just develop the team that you have."
"I think we have a very good group again, I think we have a chance to be very good again. We have a good mix of experienced talent, we have a good mix of young talent, and we have a good group of middle guys, our sophomores and juniors that have gotten experience over the past year. I think it's a really good group, and I've been really impressed with summer workouts. I'm excited to get going."
The middle guys of which Casey speaks -- rotation pieces the likes of Chris Barton, Greg King, Keleaf Tate, and Greg Kuakumensah -- will take on larger roles this season alongside the incumbent trio of guard James Towns and forwards Marvin Prochet and Dominic Robb, and Casey believes their contributions last season contributed to a revelation of sorts when analyzing the program's overall growth.
"Carryover is important, and last year, we were able to keep a whole bunch of guys -- really over the last two years -- and that's what helped us have the year we had last year," said Casey. "I think that's important, because you have to maintain something. You have to produce something to learn how to continue to produce, and I think we did that last year. I think the guys we have coming back on this team, I think they're confident and they feel like -- as do I -- that we have a chance to be really good again."
With Dukes and Scott having departed, Prochet -- the leading rebounder in the MAAC last season as a junior -- becomes the centerpiece of the Purple Eagles' offense. But for all the big man has done over a three-year body of work, there is still a prevailing feeling that he receives nowhere near the credit he deserves, something Casey believes will further motivate him this season.
"I think Marvin is extremely underrated," Casey said of Prochet. "I said this at every press conference from December on for the rest of the year, I said everybody talks about Matt Scott and Kahlil Dukes, as they should and certainly deserve. There are certainly not enough people talking about Marvin Prochet. He led the league in rebounding, he led the league in double-doubles, his assist-to-turnover ratio was almost 3-to-1 last year, he's scoring the ball better. He did whatever it took to win last year: Guarded multiple positions, was one of the leaders in blocked shots in the league, and not enough people talked about him."
"I thought he was an all-league player, and I thought he got passed over. He'll have a chance to rectify that this year, and I know he wants to. Not enough people spoke about him."
With Prochet, and also the returns of both Robb and King, not to mention Kuakumensah off the bench, it may be time to start talking about the Niagara front line as one of the MAAC's best and most complete interior presences.
"I think you have three very experienced guys there, with not only Marvin and Dom, you've got Greg King up there, too," Casey reaffirmed. "And Greg started a good portion of the year for us and did some really good things. Then there's a couple of sophomores that are jumping up, like Greg Kuakumensah and Kierell Green. I think there is some experience in our frontcourt, and they're anxious to get going."
The loss of Dukes and Scott will be felt in the backcourt, but the emergence of James Towns as a go-to scorer in the second half of last season energized the guards in the Purple Eagle program. Now the unquestioned alpha dog among them, the junior from Detroit will be unleashed this season to perhaps continue the tradition of all-conference guards just over the United States-Canada border.
"He's getting the keys to the car," Casey proclaimed. "We talked about that at the end of last year, and he's going to get the chance to run the team. I think he's going to do a great job with it. He's been a climber if you look at him throughout his career. He's climbed step by step, and now he's got a chance to step into the spotlight a little bit. The team is much more important to him than the spotlight, but he's going to have a chance to be the guy that we go to in stretches during the game, as will Marvin."
"He's looking forward to that, and I think he's capable of it. He's shown that in certain games when we needed him, and he showed it in a number of games last year. I see no reason why he can't do that going into next year."
Going into next season, one where early speculation has Niagara predicted to finish in a wide range of positions within the conference standings, Casey is not looking too far ahead, nor is he getting too high or low on his team's outlook, focusing on a gradual approach to building off a promising foundation.
"You've got to work on the day you're in and get things right in that day, whether it's in practice, film sessions, weights, whatever it is" he said. "And I know that sounds cliché and a little bit coachspeak, but I just really believe that, and I think it was certainly reinforced with some of the experiences we had to go through to get to last year. I think we're moving in a direction where we'll continue to produce some things and achieve."