Niagara Gazette — The Niagara Purple Eagles were among the first teams to get in this year's National Invitation Tournament, but they are determined not to be one of the first teams out.
"When we were in the MAAC tournament, it was win or we go to the NIT," leading scorer Antoine Mason said. "Now it's win or we've got to hang our jerseys up. And I don't feel like hanging our jerseys yet."
Niagara (19-13) earned an automatic spot in the NIT by virtue of winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular season championship. The seventh-seeded Purple Eagles play at No. 2 seed Maryland tonight (7 p.m., ESPN2, WWKB 1520) in the opening round.
This is Niagara's 14th NIT appearance since 1950 and third since 2004. But it will be the first postseason game for all but one of the current Purple Eagles, who count four sophomores and two freshmen among their top seven and rank as the 40th youngest team in the country, according to kenpom.com.
"It's time now to get one of these," coach Joe Mihalich said to his team Sunday. "I don't know if we can. It's going to be a great challenge. But it's time to get a game like this. We won the regular season championship and we've gotten ourselves an NIT bid but the next step is to go play a team like this and get a win."
Mason said Niagara's 89-67 loss at Notre Dame in December was a learning experience the Purple Eagles can put to use in the NIT.
"When we played Notre Dame, I realized how good a team can be and you can't take any time off," Mason said.
Niagara has won nine games all-time in the NIT. The 1954 team won a quarterfinal and a consolation game to claim third place in the eight-team field. The 1972 team won three games to advance to the championship game, where it lost to Maryland by 31 points, the largest margin of defeat ever in an NIT final. The 1987 team beat Seton Hall before losing in the second round to LaSalle, where Mihalich was an assistant coach. In 2004, Niagara beat Troy in a play-in game before losing at Nebraska in the round of 32. The 2009 team that won a school-record 26 games lost at home to Rhode Island in the first round of the NIT.
While Maryland (22-10) was an NCAA tournament bubble team with two wins over Duke this year, the Terrapins have an even younger playing rotation than the Purple Eagles, according to kenpom.com, and none of their top players have played in the postseason before.
What Maryland lacks in experience it makes up for in height. With 7-foot-1 sophomore Alex Len in the middle, the Terrapins are the sixth-tallest team in the land, and they utilize that height to rank among the top 50 nationally in rebounding, interior defense and paint scoring.
Niagara lacks as much height as it does experience, playing four guards most of the time and having nobody on the roster taller than 6-8. The Purple Eagles' quickness and ballhandling ability could help tilt the balance, however, as Niagara's high steal-rate (57th nationally) and low turnover percentage (12th) contrast with the Terrapins weakness in both areas.
The Purple Eagles have embraced their underdog status in this tournament, and were relishing the opportunity to play one of the top teams in the field.
"These guys have defied the odds all year. We weren't supposed to finish first. People kept telling us we're not supposed to do this, we're not supposed to do that," Mihalich said. "Without a doubt we are the underdogs. ... We have been the underdogs all year long. It's OK that we are the underdogs again. It's something we have taken a shine to."