Non-conference games, including the annual BracketBuster series, are often viewed in the context of giving teams a chance to earn postseason opportunities.
To Joe Mihalich and his Niagara Purple Eagles, these games have always been about “sharpening your teeth for league play.”
Sandwiched between two critical Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference contests, the Purple Eagles (21-7) host Illinois State (22-5) in the Gallagher Center tonight in a BracketBuster matchup to be televised nationally on ESPN2.
Niagara is coming off one its most disappointing outings of the season on Wednesday, a 90-87 loss at Rider that saw the Purple Eagles erase a 19-point deficit only to lose on a 3-pointer with six seconds left.
The loss grounded the Purple Eagles hopes of catching Siena in the MAAC standings. Siena — which plays Missouri Valley Conference leader Northern Iowa on Saturday — visits Niagara next Friday.
Mihalich said Illinois State, the second-place team in the MVC, boasts four perimeter players that are “every bit as good” as Siena standouts Kenny Hasbrouck and Edwin Ubiles.
“They’re a great challenge for us,” Mihalich said. “They have a real good talent level, right on the heels of Villanova, as far as teams we’ll see this year.”
Champ Oguchi (14.7), Osiris Eldridge (14.0) and Emmanuel Holloway (10.1) all average double figures in scoring, while Dinma Odiakosa, who at 6-foot-8 is the Redbirds tallest player, is chipping in with 9.2 points per game and 7.3 rebounds.
Since Landon Shipley took over as the starting point guard three games ago, the Redbirds have gone 3-0.
While Mihalich lamented the poor defensive effort in the first half of Wednesday’s loss at Rider, he was proud of the comeback effort.
“Not too many teams could’ve done that,” he said. “Tyrone Lewis and Bilal Benn just decided that they had enough and they are going to play like they know how to.”
Niagara (21-7) vs. Illinois State (22-5)
• WHEN: 7 p.m.
• WHERE: Gallagher Center
• RADIO: 105.1 The River
• TV: ESPN2
• TICKETS: Sold out
• NOTES: All-time great Calvin Murphy will return to the gym where he scored more than 2,500 points as a collegian. The Hall of Famer will autograph the poster in today’s Gazette after the game. ... As of Thursday, Illinois State had an RPI rank of 59, while Niagara was at 67, leaving both teams likely out of contention for an NCAA at-large berth. ... Illinois State is 11-0 out of conference this season. ... Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich was an assistant at Kansas two seasons ago when the Purple Eagles met the Jayhawks in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. ... Tyrone Lewis has 79 steals this season, a Niagara record. ... Lewis and Bilal Benn combined for 43 points in Wednesday’s loss at Rider. ... Sean McDonough and Bob Wenzel are the ESPN2 broadcast team.