By Jonah Bronstein
Niagara Gazette — Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, the team on the floor will match Joe Mihalich's vision of what the Niagara Purple Eagles can be in 2013.
Senior center Devon White, the "missing piece," as Mihalich calls him, will play his second game as a Purple Eagle tonight when Niagara hosts Hartford, and junior guard Marvin Jordan, the team's top 3-point shooter, may return after missing the last two games with a groin injury.
"It's nice to have your whole team," Mihalich said following Tuesday's practice. "But Devon is far from being what he is going to be and Marvin is not what he can be right now.
"Maybe it's unrealistic for everyone to be healthy. It would be great to have them all together."
Niagara is off to a 3-6 start against what Mihalich believes is the most challenging first nine games any of his 14 teams have ever faced. Six of those games have been on the road and in eight of those games, Niagara played without White, who was brought in to to shore up the Purple Eagles three big weaknesses — interior defense, rebounding and inexperience.
"It's been a tough stretch, but that's what makes you better," said Mihalich, who is one win away from 250 for his career.
A graduate student who spent the last four years at LaSalle, the burly, 6-foot-8 White is Niagara's oldest player, but also the one least familiar with the offense and not yet in game shape. He missed the start of the season while recovering from Achilles tendon surgery and has only been practicing for a couple weeks.
"I'm working every day and once I get in shape, we will be a way better team than we are now," White said. "I look forward to bringing leadership, defense and rebounding. I'm not really looking much to score. We've got Juan'ya Green and Antoine Mason. I will drop in a few buckets when I can but my main focus is defense. This is a good group of guys and I can help them get back on track and make sure they are working the same way I'm working."
"We're hoping he can be the missing piece," Mihalich said. "The guy that can give us a presence inside, catch the ball, make layups, defend his position and rebound his position. ... That position has been lacking."
In his debut game Saturday night, White had four points, five rebounds and two blocks in 23 minutes and clogged the middle of a zone defense that held UB's Javon McCrea, as good a post player as Niagara will see all season, without a field goal.
White played in 93 games over the past three seasons and averaged 5.8 points and 4.7 rebounds in 16.2 mpg for a LaSalle team that won 21 games last year. He was regarded as a defensive stalwart in the Atlantic 10, a bigger league with bigger players than the MAAC.
Having lost his starting spot at LaSalle to Jerrell Wright, a McDonald's All-America nominee who was named the Big 5 Rookie of the Year after last season, White faced a decision upon graduation in May. Stay at LaSalle and be a practice player who also apprenticed with the coaching staff, or transfer to a school in a smaller conference and play big minutes in his senior season. He also considered playing professionally overseas.
After he decided to transfer and Mihalich began recruiting him, White, a North Philadelphia native, took a look at Niagara, on strong recommendation from friends Bilal Benn and Charron Fisher. He also reached out to the Philly players on Niagara's current roster, Juan'ya Green, Ameen Tanksley and Scooter Gillette, and an incoming recruit, Tahjere McCall.
"They told me how hard they worked and how much they wanted to win," White said. "I wanted to win too. I put one and one together."
"Another thing," White said, "I liked the city, the Falls, and all the coaches I felt comfortable with. Coach wants me to work as hard as possible and he wants me to be a winner and come here and help build the program back up and get us back on that winning track."
Niagara (3-6) vs. Hartford (5-4) • WHEN: 7 p.m. • WHERE: Gallagher Center • RADIO: WWKB 1520 • NOTES: Niagara will play its first home game in 24 days after going 1-4 during its five-game road swing where it played three 2012 NCAA tournament participants. ... The sophomore triplets of Antoine Mason (19.8 ppg), Juan'ya Green (15.4 ppg) and Ameen Tanksley (10.4 ppg) averaged double figures during the five-game stretch. ... NU's last home game was a memorable one. The Purple Eagles rallied from a 22-point first half deficit to defeat New Mexico State 86-83 to finish second in the 2K Sports Classic Subregional. ... The Purple Eagles have won the last three encounters with Hartford. ... Joe Mihalich is one win away from 250 for his career