By Jonah Bronstein
Niagara Gazette — Since establishing Niagara as a high-caliber mid-major men's basketball program over a decade ago, Joe Mihalich has had a difficult time getting similarly strong teams to come play at the Gallagher Center.
"It's a great compliment to all of our fans, our student body and our program," Mihalich said.
But it's a burden on Mihalich's schedule-making responsibilities.
That's why, in the past two seasons, Mihalich has taken his team on the road to play in Gazelle Group-sponsored exempt events. In 2010, Niagara played at Georgia Tech and three games on the Detroit Mercy campus. Last year, Niagara played a game at Missouri and three games at Mercer. And last week, the Purple Eagles took what turned out to be a 15-hour trip to open the season at Oregon State.
The reward for all of that travel was to be three games this weekend at the Gallagher Center. It turns out Niagara will only get two home games out of the deal, but they are against strong competition.
"That's why we got involved in this," Mihalich said. "To get home games."
Niagara will host Bucknell at 7 tonight and New Mexico State at 4 p.m. Sunday as part of the 2K Sports Classic benefitting Wounded Warrior Project.
New Mexico State and Bucknell will play each other at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at the Gallagher Center and Bucknell will play Division II West Alabama at 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
Bucknell (2-0) was picked to finish second in the Patriot League and is receiving votes in both national polls after opening the season with wins over Purdue and George Mason. The Bison have a legitimate NBA prospect in 6-foot-11 center Mike Muscala and are an experienced squad with four seniors and three juniors in the playing rotation.
The Purple Eagles last met the Bison early in the 2005-06 season, losing 66-63 at the Gallagher Center. Niagara's NCAA tournament team lost 76-74 at Bucknell the year before.
The current Niagara team, with its four-guard alignment and 6-7 starting center Joe Thomas, struggled against Oregon State's big front line in the opener but flourished in Tuesday's home win over St. Francis (Pa.) when it wasn't at size disadvantage.
New Mexico State, a 26-win NCAA tournament team a year ago, have a 6-10 starting center, Tshilidzi Nephawe, and a 7-5, 360-pound reserve center, Sim Bhullar. The Aggies opened the season with a 71-62 loss at Oregon State.
Niagara received a signed letter of intent this week from Jamall Robinson, a 6-foot-5 swingman from Paul VI Catholic in Fairfax, Va.
"The Niagara basketball family is ecstatic over signing Jamall Robinson," Mihalich said. "We just signed a total package guy, terrific player, terrific person, someone who can do everything on the lfoor, all out winner and someone that is going to help us win some championships."
2K SPORTS CLASSIC SUBREGIONAL [ital] at Gallagher Center [ital] Tonight Niagara (1-1) vs. Bucknell (2-0), 7 p.m. Saturday Bucknell vs. New Mexico State (0-1), 5:30 p.m. Sunday Bucknell vs. West Alabama, 1:30 p.m. Niagara vs. New Mexico State, 4 p.m.