By Mike Meiler firstname.lastname@example.org
Niagara Gazette — LEWISTON — It feels like much longer than a year has passed since the 2012-13 Niagara University men’s basketball team won the Mid Atlantic Athletic Conference regular season championship, when a core of freshmen and sophomores looked poised for multiple title runs in the upcoming years.
Instead, longtime 15-year Purple Eagles coach Joe Mihalich shocked many on Monteagle Ridge by leaving for Hofstra. Guard Juan’ya Green — the sophomore sensation who won MAAC Rookie of the Year as a freshman and was named first team all-league last season — followed suit, transferring to join Mihalich with the Pride. Ameen Tanksley, another starting sophomore guard, joined them.
All-Rookie forward T.J. Cline left for Richmond. Reserves Malcolm Lemmons and Lawrence Johnson also jumped ship.
In the end, all that remained were five returnees — Antoine Mason, Marvin Jordan, Tahjere McCall, Joe Thomas and Rayvon Harris. And despite a first-year head coach (Chris Casey) and 11 new players, the veterans maintain that not much has changed as the Purple Eagles prepare to open the 2013-14 season tonight at Seton Hall (6 p.m., Fox Sports 2 and WGR 550).
“It all kind of feels the same,” said Mason, a sophomore guard named first-team All-MAAC last season after leading the Purple Eagles in scoring with 18.3 points per game. “We have the same concepts and we’re still going to push the ball.”
“The only thing different is the coaching change,” added Jordan. “The energy in practice has been pretty much the same, and the guys are going hard every day. It’s pretty much the same, just a different look.”
Casey takes the helm as the 21st coach in Niagara history after three seasons at Division II LIU Post, where he went 62-25 and posted back-to-back 20-win seasons. He brings 27 years of coaching experience, including stints as a Division I assistant at St. John’s, Central Connecticut State and Saint Peter’s.
Casey said his game emphasizes pushing the tempo, something Mihalich did with a guard-heavy roster last season. It’s a system Mason and Jordan are familiar with, and one they say will allow them to be free to create offensively.
“Having the freedom to just come down and play basketball is always good,” Jordan said. “Getting up and down is key for the types of guys we have and the type of basketball we want to play.”
With Green running point, Mason and Jordan spent most of last season playing off the ball. Mason said he trained with his father — former NBA All-Star Anthony Mason — on his off-ball play over the summer, but added that he expects to have the ball in his hands more this year as his young teammates adjust to the Division I game.
The biggest scheme changes will come on defense, where Casey prefers a man-to-man concept as opposed to Mihalich’s zone. Casey said his system is designed to pressure opposing ball handlers into making quick decisions.
“We want to try to speed you up, to see if we can get you going faster than you want to go,” he said. “We want to guard you, and we want to rebound, but we also want to get up and down the floor.”
While Casey wouldn’t commit to a starting lineup for tonight’s opener, he gave clues with his player usage in exhibition games against Roberts Wesleyan and Buffalo State, which Niagara won 82-44 and 96-71. Jordan and Mason — both team captains — started against Buff State, along with redshirt freshman transfer point guard Cameron Fowler, true freshman Ramone Snowden and senior transfer Marcus Ware.
Fowler transferred from Iowa State and could start at point guard. Snowden is a 6-foot-5 swingman who averaged 22 points per game at Kellam High School in Virginia Beach, Va., while Ware is a 6-foot-8 forward who came over from Monmouth.
While it’s easy to assume size is an issue with mid-major teams that like to play fast, that isn’t the case with this year’s Purple Eagles, said Casey. He said he plans on using four or five forwards, including Ware, Snowden, Thomas and freshmen Aaron Bodie and Dominique Reid.
Guards coming off the bench include McCall, Harris and freshmen Wesley Myers, Alex Dubovitskiy and David Varoli. Guards Thomas Fleming, Emile Blackman and Karonn Davis will sit out the season as redshirts.
A team with nine freshmen may be graded on a curve, but Casey and his veterans have been impressed with the young talent early on, particularly after the exhibition games. Last season set the bar for the Purple Eagles, and despite the new faces, the players are convinced the team can be just as successful.
“I saw some fight and energy and I saw a lot of guys who want to play, want to compete and want to be good,” Jordan said. “Everybody’s showing little signs here and there. ... (Getting back to that level) is definitely expected, but as we continue to come in here and work hard day in and day out, there’s no telling what this team can do. This league is a very surprising league, anybody can beat anybody day in and day out.”
“I can tell we’re hungry,” added Mason. “People will doubt us, but in the exhibitions, I could tell that when things don’t go as well, we’ll stick together and fight through just like we did last year. I can see similarities.”
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