By Jonah Bronstein
The symbols say “Kaizen” in Japanese, which translates to “continuous improvement” in English. Emblazoned on the front of team-issued t-shirts, the phrase has become a rallying cry for the Niagara Purple Eagles, a proud basketball program trying to navigate its way back from a rare losing season.
It’s coach speak, for sure. Even the coach admits such. Joe Mihalich tugs at the front of his shirt when he jokes, “no amount of Kaizen,” will help Niagara if the players aren’t good enough to begin with.
Nobody knows better than Mihalich what it takes to win in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. He’s the conference’s career leader in wins (232). In 13 seasons at Niagara, he’s reached the MAAC championship game five times, the NCAA tournament twice, and the NIT twice. Before that, he was an assistant at LaSalle, the original MAAC dynasty.
Mihalich believes he has assembled a group capable of winning the MAAC championship — someday. In all likelihood, it won’t be the 2012 title.
“There’s a bright future here, I really believe that,” Mihalich said. “I just don’t know how soon it is going to be brightened.”
In striving to get better day by day, the Purple Eagles are determined to be better than last year’s team that went 9-23 — the worst record in Mihalich’s tenure at Niagara — and got blown out in the opening round of the MAAC tournament.
“Last year, we struggled a little bit because we were young and we lacked experience,” said sophomore guard Malcolm Lemmons. “We’re trying to put it in the past and at the same time learn from it.”
A year ago, Niagara had one of the youngest teams in Division I. Somehow, the roster got even younger over the summer. Anthony Nelson, who led the team in scoring last season, led the nation in steals and set Niagara’s all-time assists record, graduated. Leading rebounder and double-figure scorer Kashief Edwards transferred out of the program for his senior season. Two juniors also left the team, guard Kevon Moore, a part-time starter last year, and seldom-used center Luuk Kortekaas.
Now, the Purple Eagles have just one senior, walk-on forward Paul Kowalski (St. Joe’s), who will only play in emergencies and home blowouts. Junior centers Eric Williams and Scooter Gillette will be called upon to provide some veteran leadership, not to mention an uptick in production after combining for just eight points and six rebounds last season per game last season.
Aside from junior college transfer Ali Langford, everyone else is an underclassmen, and the freshman out-number the sophomores.
“There are times we might have five freshman on the floor at the same time,” Mihalich said, “which is exciting and scary at the same time.”
Two of those freshman have been in the program for a year. Burly guard Antoine Mason lead the team in scoring for the first three games last season, averaging 16.7 points, before a stress fracture in his foot forced him to take a medical redshirt.
“Last year’s team struggled to score points, and that’s why losing him was so key,” Mihalich said. “We really missed him. To really make a difference for us, he has to score points and improve in other areas.”
Joe Thomas, a 6-foot-7 forward, will also join the rotation after redshirting as a freshman last year.
“We’re excited about Joe Thomas,” Mihalich said. “He’s still very inconsistent. He’s one of those guys that hasn’t played a lot of basketball yet, that’s why he redshirted. But there are days when he is our best big man in practice.”
Mihalich is high on true freshmen Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley, AAU teammates from Philadelphia. Tanksley is a big, physical guard, whom Mihalich hopes can develop into a Bilal Benn-type four-man. Green is set to start at point guard in tonight’s season opener against Central Connecticut State.
“Juan’ya is terrific,” Mihalich said. “I hate to put pressure on freshmen. I hate to build them up, I really do. But he can be a special player.”
Another freshman, swingman Josh Turner, will become eligible to join the team in mid-December, and Mihalich is eager to get him into the mix.
A.J. West, a center prospect who had committed to Duquesne before enrolling at Niagara this semester, has decided not to play basketball this season, according to an email athletic director Ed McLaughlin sent to boosters.
Two sophomores who endured last season’s trials, Lemmons and all-rookie guard Marvin Jordan, both improved dramatically since last season, Mihalich said. Lemmons focused on becoming a better shooter, while Jordan, who made 77 3-pointers as a freshman, worked on becoming a more complete player.
“They both worked extremely hard,” Mihalich said.
With continued improvement, it will only be a matter of time before the glory days return to the Gallagher Center.
“We’re a long way away from where we need to be, to be good enough to win this league,” Mihalich said. “But if we can get better every day, we can be a really good team.”