Niagara 'working' to play in MAAC tourney

As the most recent Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference men's basketball to announce a COVID-19 pause, there's a bit of uncertainty as to whether the Niagara Purple Eagles will be cleared to play in the conference tournament.

Niagara announced its pause on around 11:30 p.m. Feb. 25, just over 12 hours before it was supposed to play Battle of the Bridge rival Canisius in the first of a two-game series at the Gallagher Center. The MAAC tournament starts Monday in Atlantic City, N.J. That's an 11-day span to clear NCAA, conference and New Jersey protocols.

As of Tuesday, the Purple Eagles still hadn't returned to practice.

"We're working through it," NU coach Greg Paulus said Tuesday during a conference call involving each of the 11 MAAC men's basketball head coaches and commissioner Rich Ensor. "We did have the Canisius series cancelled as a result of the COVID protocols and so right now we're working with health and the medical staff in terms of how things will look moving forward."

Ensor said he expects each of the leagues's 21 men's or women's basketball teams — the Canisius women cancelled their season in December — to be available for the tournament, at least based their statuses Tuesday. That could obviously change with positive tests in the next handful of days.

"The (teams) currently on pause will all be eligible, I think, for the championship," he said. "They've gone through the contract tracing process, they've identified who's in what status."

That said, the conference is prepared should teams be forced to forgo the tourneys due to a positive test — a likely scenario, given the MAAC has made well over 100 schedule changes due to various COVID pauses throughout the season.

Ensor said the official men's and women's brackets will be released at 12 a.m. Monday. Any positive tests after that would lead to a "no contest," and the opposing team would automatically advance.

The NU men (8-10, 7-9 MAAC) can finish anywhere from fifth to 10th in the conference, which means they could open conference play next Monday, Tuesday or Thursday. Practice time will be severely limited, depending on when they clear protocols.

Still, in a year of unknowns, Paulus will be grateful simply to have his players take the court one more time.

"This is an exciting time of year and we're just hoping for an opportunity," he said.

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Canisius has been hit as hard as any MAAC men's team, save for Iona. The Golden Griffins (6-4, 6-4) have played just 10 games due to postponements from their own pauses or those of their scheduled opponents.

Head coach Reggie Witherspoon said Tuesday he has players who have been in quarantine for over 140 days.

"It's an extreme challenge," he said. "We have an emotional support dog with one guy. You can't control it.

"The coaches I talk to around the country, one of the biggest struggles is you're used to being able to solve some of the issues that arrive during a season, and COVID does not fit in that category."

The cancelled Niagara games left the Griffs with a very thin margin. The NCAA requires teams to play 13 games in order to be eligible in the national championship tournament. Canisius has games scheduled with Siena on Thursday and Friday, and should play at least one game in the MAAC tournament.

But as the Griffs know, games can disappear in an instant. Should Siena or a MAAC tourney foe be forced to pull out, Canisius could end up in a position where it's the MAAC representative for the NCAA but does not have enough games to qualify.

So the program applied for a waiver on Saturday. Witherspoon said the MAAC handles the request and that he had not heard anything back as of Tuesday.

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