LEWISTON — For the first time in the Greg Paulus era, Niagara University is over .500.
After dropping its first two games to Maryland and Bucknell by an average of 20 points, Niagara has won three in a row, sweeping a pair of games in Dublin, Ireland, and shrugging off a slow start in a 38-point win over D’Youville on Wednesday.
The Purple Eagles are still trying to find their rhythm with a roster that features three players who saw playing time a year ago. The addition of the transfer portal to college basketball has increased fluidity of player movement and mid-major programs like Niagara can no longer seek late-bloomers and under-the-radar players to develop over the span of four years.
In total, the Purple Eagles have eight players who have played at another college previously. That means a steeper learning curve when it comes to integrating players into the program and finding ways to make them prosper.
“It’s continuous improvement,” Paulus said. “It’s not about the result, it’s more about the process and the process of becoming the best version of ourselves. … We’re in the process of learning what that takes and what that looks like.”
One of the players who is returning from last year is Noah Thomasson, who averaged 10.8 points per game last year, but showed flashes of being a go-to scorer at times. He had a 1-for-9 game against Maryland that netted two points, but he has been in double figures every game since.
His breakout game came on a 29-point performance against Central Arkansas in the first game in Dublin and he followed it up by rebounding from first-half foul trouble against Stetson — which entered 3-0 with a win over Florida State — and scored all 15 points in the second half.
Thomasson once again had a slow start, but scored all 10 of his first-half points in the final eight minutes as Niagara turned a three-point hole into a 12-point halftime lead against the Division II Saints.
“I just thought we played together and we’re at our best when we play together,” said Thomasson, who had a game-high 15 points against D’Youville.
There also seems to be an advantage in having so many new players because they are all going through the same experiences and some — like Thomasson and Sam Iorio — went through it last season. Iorio and Thomasson are the lone returning starters, but Southern New Hampshire transfer Aaron Gray has been solid, scoring in double-digits three of the last four games, while grabbing five rebounds.
Indian Hills (Iowa) Community College transfer Braxton Bayless has a pair of 14-point games, including against Maryland, while David Mitchell has produced 7.7 points off the bench in the three-game win streak.
“Everyone’s getting adjusted,” said David Mitchell, a 6-foot-6 forward who transferred from Brown in June. “I’m not the only one, so I think that helps everyone around the board. Everyone brings their own thing to the table, their own characteristics to the team and I think that helps, whether you’re new or returning. Everyone brings their own role to the team.”
Niagara is still finding the pace it plays best. It played a more uptempo game in a 73-64 win over Central Arkansas, but slowed the game down to win a slugfest with Stetson. The Purple Eagles played a bit slower against D’Youville, but pulled away with a 17-point outburst in the first five minutes in the second half when the pace quickened.
“The style of the games are going to change with our opponent,” Paulus said. “Some teams are going to press a little more, some teams are going to be more half-court oriented. We want to be opportunistic when we get rebounds or force turnovers and take advantage of those situations. If we have to execute, let’s make sure we’re disciplined and run our stuff to the best of our ability.”
Niagara (3-2) travels to St. John’s at 2 p.m. Saturday.