BY JONAH BRONSTEIN
Niagara Gazette — It has already been the most challenging early-season schedule the Niagara Purple Eagles have faced in 15 years, and the biggest challenge is still on the horizon.
Niagara (5-6) travels to play No. 22 Notre Dame (11-1) tonight on national television (7 p.m., ESPNU, WECK 1230).
The Irish have won nine games in a row since losing a neutral-site game to St. Joe’s on Nov. 16, with one of those wins over defending national-champion Kentucky. They rank as one of the top 10 offensive teams in the country, according to kenpom.com.
“Sometimes, when you watch a lot of tape, even with a good team, you see things that are vulnerable,” coach Joe Mihalich said. “The more you watch this team, the more you realize how good they are. They don’t foul, they control the pace of the game, they only play seven guys but everybody is good.”
A busload of fans will accompany the Purple Eagles on their second trip to South Bend, Ind. under Mihalich. Back in 2005, Niagara lost 80-59 in front of 8,053 fans at Joyce Center. The Purple Eagles finished 11-18 that year while the Irish wound up 16-14.
Niagara has played four ranked teams since 2004, most recently last year at Missouri. In past seasons, however, a game like this was the exception on Niagara’s non-conference schedule, accompanied by a dozen games against teams from smaller conferences.
Twelve games into this season, Niagara will have played six teams that qualified for last year’s NCAA tournament — Notre Dame, New Mexico State, St. Bonaventure, Vermont and Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference foes Loyola and Iona. The Purple Eagles have also played Oregon State, a Pac 12 team that is off to an 8-2 start, and a Bucknell team that is favored to win the Patriot League and received a single top 25 vote this week from John Feinstein.
Niagara’s strength of schedule currently ranks 109th nationally, according to realtimerpi.com, and is sure to rise after tonight’s game.
“The idea is to play these teams and get better and better for league play,” Mihalich said. “I’m hoping that in February I can say the November/December schedule prepared us to be successful.”
The Irish are led by 6-9 center Jack Cooley, a preseason all-Big East pick who is averaging 14.5 points and 11 rebounds and is the nation’s best offensive rebounder, according to kenpom.com.
Cooley will surely challenge the undersized Purple Eagles, though Niagara’s interior defense has been fortified since senior transfer Devon White joined the lineup three games ago. In last week’s home wins over Hartford and Vermont, the Purple Eagles allowed an average of 58.5 points.
“Those last two wins gave us a lot more confidence defensively,” Mihalich said.
Mihalich joked that when playing a team like Notre Dame, it’s McDonald’s All-Americans versus “guys who eat at McDonald’s.” But there is at least one position where the Purple Eagles are on par with the Irish. Sophomore point guard Juan’ya Green was one of 80 players nominated Thursday for the Bob Cousy Award, along with Notre Dame’s Eric Atkins.
The Niagara women’s team will play at UB at 2 today. At 5-4, the Purple Eagles are over .500 in non-conference play for the first time since 2005. UB is 1-9 and 0-4 at home.