By Jonah Bronstein
NIAGARA FALLS —
Two years ago, Niagara University guards Tyrone Lewis and Bilal Benn ranked first and second in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and among the top 15 nationally in steals. As the season progressed, so did the in-house competition to see who would finish with a higher per-game average.
The players would protest perceived stat-keeping errors after games. They would lobby for defensive matchups favorable for generating steals. Benn would claim Lewis had an unfair advantage guarding the primary ball-handler so often. Lewis would argue that his pressure on the point led to wayward passes for Benn to pick off. In the end, a photo of Lewis and Benn stealing a bounty of basketballs out of the Niagara locker room appeared in the NCAA Tournament program.
“Me and Bilal literally used to fight over steals. Sometimes we’d turn the ball back over because we were both going for the steal,” Lewis said by phone Thursday from his home in Levittown, Pa. where he is recovering from a knee injury suffered playing professionally in Israel.
“As a kid growing up, you worry about points, trying to get 20,” Lewis said. “Once you start to notice you’re fourth in the nation in steals, like I was, you’re trying to get three every game.”
Currently, there are only six Division I men’s basketball players (and no NBA players) averaging three or more steals per game, and two of them are from Western New York colleges.
Anthony Nelson, Lewis’ former Niagara teammate, is the national leader at 3.28 per game.
University at Buffalo point guard Byron Mulkey held the national lead for much of the early season and entered the week ranked second behind Nelson, but with just one steal in Wednesday’s win at Western Michigan, the Niagara-Wheatfield graduate slid to sixth at 3.0 per game.
Nelson and Mulkey are both too team-oriented to make leading the country in steals a priority. Nelson said he only looks at his stat sheet after wins, and with the Purple Eagles having lost 10 of their last 11 games, he didn’t know he had taken the national lead until his mother mentioned it to him.
“It has made playing defense real fun for me,” Nelson acknowledged with a smile. “That wasn’t my main goal, but I knew I had to be very aggressive on defense and set the tone for my teammates. The steals just started coming to me. I try to be active and the ball comes to my area and I grab it up.”
Nelson went on a ball-hawking binge earlier this month, racking up 20 steals over a three game span. He had eight steals in a win over Siena on Jan. 9, becoming the only player in Division I this season to record 30 points, 10 rebounds and eight steals in the same game.
Observing from afar, Lewis is proud of his pocket-picking protégé.
“Ant was always a good defender,” Lewis said. “We used to guard each other all the time in practice. Ant, for one, was just as fast as me and the key with him is he’s a little bit taller (6-foot-1) and his arm length is longer. He has the ability to bait guys. And he’s so strong, he could beat up on a guard more than I can. Every team knows now when you get the ball and 31 is guarding you, you’ve got to be careful.”
Niagara coach Joe Mihalich said Nelson’s steal totals have been “amazing,” particularly since the Purple Eagles have played so much zone defense this season.
“There’s probably 4,000 Division I basketball players out there and he’s No. 1,” Mihalich said. “It really speaks to what a complete player he is. He’s found a way to be involved in every play on the offensive and defensive end.”
Mihalich said Nelson’s been prolific in the steals category this season for the same reason he’s closing in on Niagara's all-time assists record.
“He sees things happening in slow motion,” Mihalich said. “That’s why he gets so many assists. He feels the play happening, he sees the play happening, and he makes the right pass. Same thing on defense. He reads what’s happening, he sees what’s happening and he makes the play.”
Nelson needs to average 1.5 steals (roughly his career average) over the rest of the season to break Lewis’ single-season Niagara record of 2.6 per game. Should he maintain his current average, he could become the third player in Niagara history to finish as the national leader in a statistical category. Alex “Boo” Ellis led the country in rebounding (20.3 per game) in 1957-58 and Alvin Young led the country in scoring (25.1 per game) in 98-99. Three seasons ago, Charron Fisher flirted with the national scoring title before finishing second.
UB has had two players finish as national leaders: Sam Pellom (16.2 rebounds per game) in 1975-76 and John Boyer (3.70 assist-to-turnover ratio) last season.
“To have that one guy who leads the country in a category is just an unbelievable feeling,” said UB coach Reggie Witherspoon, who was the Bulls’ ball-boy during Pellom’s playing days. “It’s awesome, it really is.”
Witherspoon said Mulkey’s mental and physical toughness, quickness, anticipation and presence of mind have contributed to his steal proficiency. He also praised the fifth-year senior’s knack for securing long rebounds and drawing charges.
“It’s a matter of being in the game,” Mulkey said. “If (a steal) happens it happens, if not, so be it. On the defensive end, that’s where things start. You can create offense. Being able to anticipate a lot of communication on the defensive end, you fall into steals, you fall into getting stops. And that’s what it’s all about, getting stops as a team.”
Niagara (4-17, 1-8) at Canisius (9-10, 3-6) • 7 p.m. • WGR • ESPNU
Coach: Tom Parrotta
G 15 Julius Coles Sr. 10.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg
G 12 Gaby Belardo So. 11.3 ppg, 2.2 rpg
G 3 Robert Goldsberry Sr. 6.6 ppg, 2.3 rpg
F 24 Elton Frazier Sr. 10.7 pg, 4.4 rpg
F 00 Greg Logins Sr. 10.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg
G 11 Alshwan Hymes So. 9.5 ppg, 2.2 rpg
G 5 Reggie Groves R-Fr. 1.8 ppg, 1.6 rpg
F 42 T. Vazquez-Simmons Sr. 4.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg
The Griffs are coming off a 75-73 home win over Iona in which they shot a season-bet 53.8 percent from the field. ... Logins had a career-high 30 points in the win and Belardo scored the game-winner on a fast break layup with 3.4 seconds left. ... Leading the MAAC in blocked shots with 5.1 per game. ... Have been out-rebounded in each of last seven games. ... 6-1 on the season when out-rebounding opponents. ... Hymes made nine 3-pointers in a game ealrier this season, tying the MAAC record. ... Griffs won 73-70 at Koessler last season.
Coach: Joe Mihalich
G 31 Anthony Nelson Sr. 16.1 ppg, 3.3 spg
G 32 Marvin Jordan Fr. 10.4 ppg, 2.7 apg
G 24 Kevon Moore So. 5.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg
C 15 Eric Williams So. 3.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg
C 15 Scooter Gillette So. 3.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg
G 1 Malcolm Lemmons Fr. 6.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg
G 22 Skylar Jones Fr. 6.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg
F 34 Kashief Edwards Jr. 12.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg
Edwards will dress for the game, but is questionable to play. He missed the past four games after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his knee, but returned to practice this week. ... Purple Eagles have lost 10 of last 11 but played close with MAAC leaders Iona and Fairfield at home last weekend. ... Williams followed up an 18-point, nine-rebound performance against Iona’s strong frontline with one point and three rebounds in 20 minutes against Fairfield. ... Nelson went without an assist for the first time in his career against Fairfield. He is averaging a career-low 4.2 assists on the season and is 54 behind Alvin Cruz’s all-time record.