By Jonah Bronstein
Niagara Gazette — The Niagara Purple Eagles have been on an accelerated path in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference all season.
Eighth-place finishers a year ago, Niagara was picked to finish fifth this year with the youngest playing rotation in the MAAC. After getting off to the fastest start in school history, the Purple Eagles are now leading the pack as the MAAC title race heads down the home stretch.
"Are we ahead of schedule?" coach Joe Mihalich asked rhetorically after an earlier win. "I don't know what the schedule is."
The schedule is as such that the Purple Eagles need only win two more home games to clinch their first MAAC regular season title since 2005. With that would come the top seed in the upcoming MAAC tournament, and a guaranteed spot in the NIT if they don't qualify for the NCAAs.
Heading into tonight's game with Rider, Niagara holds a one-game lead over defending champion Loyola in the MAAC standings. Loyola plays at Iona on Friday night.
Rider is the lone MAAC team Niagara has yet to beat this season. Playing without leading scorer Antoine Mason on Feb. 7 in Lawrencville, N.J., the Purple Eagles lost 72-69 after leading at halftime.
The Broncs have won five of their last six and are tied with Canisius for third-place in the MAAC standings.
"We've got a tone of respect for Rider," Niagara coach Joe Mihalich said. "They are a hard team to play against, mismatch problems one through five. Most underrated team in the conference, I think, with the most underrated player in the conference in Jonathan Thompson."
Niagara also got a rare negative performance from point guard Juan'ya Green, who this week was named as a finalist for the Lou Henson National Mid-Major Player of the Year award. Green, the Purple Eagles' second-leading scorer and one of the leading candidates for MAAC Player of the Year, shot 1 for 17 from the field in the loss.