McGrath: NU basketball showing signs of a new day

Bill McGrath

Don't go by the record, but it appears Niagara men's basketball is in the early stages of a renewal.

Yes, I know, it's only 15 games into the Greg Paulus Era, but the signs are there. This is a team with only two seniors and short on experience and size.

Despite the shortcomings, Niagara has stayed in contention more times than you might expect, sometimes against much better teams. Playing nine of their first 11 games on the road would be a challenge for any team, but it may have served as a vehicle in developing chemistry and character.  

There are reasons to be optimistic, certainly not about the wins and losses this season, but the bigger picture ahead. A return to the standards and goals Joe Mihalich established in his 15 years as head coach could be on the horizon.

For one thing, you gotta like the energy this group plays with at both ends of the floor. They trailed 27-11 against Colgate at the Gallagher Center last month, a brutal start for a young team. They turned it up a notch on defense, forced a lot of turnovers and only trailed 42-39 at the half. They took over in the second half and won in overtime against a team that is favored to win the Patriot League. Colgate beat Cincinnati on the road several days later.

Their energy and the confidence must be coming from Paulus, their enthusiastic coach who sports a basketball pedigree NU is lucky to have. Duke point guard, Coach K. Enough said.

I only saw him play in person once, in the 2007 NCAA Tournament when Duke came to Buffalo and played Virginia Commonweath. I can still see that signature slap at the floor as VCU brought the ball up at mid-court, an outward expression of his competitiveness. He scored a game-high 25 points, but he and the Blue Devils were eliminated 79-77. 

Aside from the obvious coaching upgrade and a need for rebounders, there is some hint that the Purple Eagles may be better scoring from the perimeter. The 3-point shot has become a more prominent weapon in college basketball in recent years. Niagara has a few snipers including sophomores Marcus Hammond and Raheem Solomon and freshman reserve Nick MacDonald. Hammond is making more than 39% of his 3s and Solomon is hitting 38.1.

They may have another sharpshooter next season with the arrival of guard Tah'Jae Hill, who is averaging about 30 points a game at Class AA Hilton High School in Rochester. The best part of his verbal commitment to Niagara is that former stars Demond Stewart and James Reaves were involved in the recruiting process.

Stewart was an Associated Press honorable mention All-American and MAAC Player of the Year in 2001, and Reaves, a 6-8, 240-pound power forward, was the MAAC Tournament MVP in 2004 when NU went to the NIT. 

Stewart and Reaves live in Rochester and have been business partners and teammates with the professional Rochester Razorsharks. Both have coached at University Preparatory Charter School for Young Men, another Section V Class AA school.

Their effort to help NU land Hill recalls former Niagara assistant coach Dick Conover alerting Mihalich to check out a guard he thought would fit well at Monteagle Ridge. He didn't play too badly.

Junior college transfer Alvin Young played two years at Niagara and had a breakout season as a senior in 1998-99 when he led the nation in scoring with 25.1 points per game. That included a 44-point shredding of Siena's defense in a big win in Albany. He later played professionally in Europe.

Former players and alumni are vital to Niagara's future success. Who better to talk about the basketball tradition than those who experienced it?

So forget the 4-11 record for now. Look ahead. The process of restoring Niagara's credibility seems to be underway.

Bill McGrath is a former Niagara Gazette sports editor who covered Niagara basketball for 30 years. Respond to him via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

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