Buy games in the books, the real season starts tonight for Niagara University men's basketball.
After two losses to high major powers Xavier and No. 17 Ohio State by a combined 13 points, the Purple Eagles remain in the Buckeye State for the YSU/J. Arnold Wealth Management Company Basketball Tournament, a multi-team event hosted by Youngstown State. The level of competition will drop just a touch, with NU playing SIU Edwardsville at 7:45 p.m. tonight, St. Thomas at 4:45 p.m. Saturday and the host Penguins at 3:45 p.m. Sunday. Each game will stream live on ESPN+.
"When you play three games in three days, it's different," Niagara head coach Greg Paulus said. "It's a little bit like a (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) Tournament setting, if you're able to be fortunate enough to advance.
"For us, there's three different styles of play. Whether it's pressing a little bit more, whether it's a little bit more zone, whether it's a little bit more five-out offense, each day is going to present a really difficult challenge for us on both ends of the floor. And when you don't have a couple of days to prepare, it makes it a challenge."
Another challenge will be going from playing with house money — Niagara earned $95,000 to play Ohio State, according to the Columbus Dispatch; Xavier, a private school, is not required to make its finances public — to being expected to win.
The Purple Eagles, ranked 224th in the country according the analytics website KenPom.com, are 8.5-point favorites against SIUE (No. 321) and could be favored even more against St. Thomas (330). They'd also probably be favored against YSU (271) at a neutral site.
"It's going to be a great opportunity to learn about where we are with our principles, where we are as a team, how we adjust and adapt in a short turnaround, let alone within the game," Paulus said. "I think we're really going to continue to learn more about ourselves."
Key for Niagara will be rebounding. NU held its own for the most part on the glass against Xavier and Ohio State, outrebounded by an average of 36.5-31 over the two games. Both times, the Purple Eagles played even with their major competition when the rebounding numbers were equal, but game-deciding runs coincided with spurts where their opponents got the better of the boards.
Stronger starts out of halftime would help, too. Niagara was a combined minus-5 in the first 10 minutes of the first halves in their opening two games but minus-16 in the first 10 out of the locker room.
"In both those games, we had to call the timeout within the first five, six minutes of that half," Paulus said. "They were able to stretch leads of make it from a one-possession game to a couple-possession game. ... The start of the second half is an area that we want to get better at and try to make teams call the first timeout as opposed to us calling the first timeout."
Hill, Lancaster, Moore, Obioha officially sign
The NCAA's early signing period opened Nov. 10, and the Purple Eagles officially announced their signees Tuesday.
All four of NU's verbal commits — Donovan Hill, Shane Lancaster, Bryce Moore and Harlan Obioha — signed their national letters of intent, officially joining the program.
"It was an exciting day," Paulus said. "Our staff worked incredibly hard. We're excited to welcome the four new guys and their families to our Niagara basketball program."
In six seasons prior to Paulus taking over as head coach, Niagara had just one November commitment — current redshirt junior Steven Levnaic. Four is unheard of.
Paulus said being able to hit the recruiting trail and invite prospective players to campus after the year of COVID-19 made a major difference.
"I still remember the first time I met (graduate forward) Jordan Cintron was at our first team meeting," Paulus laughed. "I went up and I introduced myself, 'Hey, I'm Greg Paulus.' And we talked for a couple minutes and he said, 'Well, where's the gym?'
"So when you're able to have some families and recruits on campus, you're certainly able to develop a little bit more and have that relationship a little bit differently."
The 6-foot-8 Hill and 7-foot Obioha will add to a frontcourt that is likely to lose four players to graduation. Hill, from Central Dauphin High School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was the class's first verbal commitment.
Obioha played both football and basketball at Hoxie High School in Kansas, earning FBS football offers from the likes of Iowa State and Ole Miss. Instead he picked basketball, and has been working on what was the 300-pound frame of an offensive lineman. He's currently prepping at the Rocky Mountain Sports Academy.
"He's worked hard at it even before we were recruiting him to when we started to where he is now," Paulus said. "That's something that he's been very diligent with his approach on."
Lancaster and Moore are both 6-4 guards. Lancaster plays for St. John's College High School in Bowie, Maryland, while Moore comes from Carmel Catholic High School in Round Rock, Illinois — the alma mater of Niagara assistant coach Kevin Devitt.
Lancaster played AAU with Hill at We R 1 and said his former teammate played a big role in recruiting him. So did Noah Thomasson, a junior college transfer in his first season at Niagara who kept in touch with Lancaster after his visit to campus.
Lancaster picked up on that connectivity, asking Paulus for his future teammates' phone numbers to set up group chats before they arrive on Monteagle Ridge next fall.
"We want to build a camaraderie and a connection amongst teammates," Paulus said. "When Shane committed to us, he reached out and said, 'Hey, could I have the other guys' numbers? I want to start talking to them and building those relationships.' To me, that was something that, 'Yea, here's the number, if that's what you want to do, that's awesome.'
"For us, those relationships, it's a big part of what we do and how we do it. And I'm glad that they feel comfortable and wanted to be a part of Niagara basketball."
Even with the additions, Niagara has three open scholarships for next fall.