To learn all about Niagara, I corresponded with Asher Fusco, the book's resident MAAC expert. Fusco has worked in the newspaper industry and has contributed to BasketballProspectus.com in recent years. We appreciate his help in previewing the Purple Eagles.
Q: All four teams in the tournament have at least one win over a mid-major foe (well, sans Sam Houston State) and one unforgiving loss to a high-major squad. What went well in the win for Niagara? And what went wrong in the loss?
A: Niagara's victory against Central Connecticut State was a big one for the program: Coming off a rough 9-23 season last year, the Purple Eagles overcame a 10-point halftime deficit to take a strong CCSU team to overtime and ultimately win, 102-93. Aggressive guard play was Niagara's strong point in the victory, as the team posted a 62.5 free throw rate on the shoulders of 32 combined free throw attempts from the starting backcourt. Diminutive sophomore Marvin Jordan was especially impressive, going 10-for-13 from the stripe and tallying 23 points in 40 minutes.
This past week against Missouri, Niagara just didn't have the athletes to match up with the Tigers, who pressured the Purple Eagles into a turnover on nearly 24 percent of their possessions. Jordan, the star of the team's first game, scored six points on 2-for-11 shooting and Mizzou star Marcus Denmon went off for 22 points on just 13 shots.
Which player is the most likely to have a) a big scoring outburst, b) a double-double, c) a highly efficient game in a low usage role?
Shooting guard Marvin Jordan is the most likely Purple Eagle to light up the scoreboard. He hasn't shot the ball well from outside yet this season (2-for-13 on threes), but he's a streaky shooter and an aggressive offensive player who lets teammate Juan'ya Green do most of the passing.
The lion's share of Niagara's offense comes from its three starting guards, so it's unlikely a post player will post a double-double, but if anyone could do it, it's Joe Thomas. The freshman is the first big man off the bench for the Purple Eagles, and he's the team's best rebounder and top post scorer. Thomas is averaging about 20 points and 10 rebounds per 40 minutes through two games.
Starting post Scooter Gillette might not shoot often, but when he does, he's pretty efficient. Gillette, a 6-foot-8 junior, has converted nearly 56 percent of his field goal attempts and 86 percent of his free throw tries. He's the least likely of Niagara's starters to shoot, having used just 17 percent of the team's possessions during his playing time.
Based on last year's results and the few games played this season, what can we expect of the team during this tournament?
In his decade-plus at Niagara, head coach Joe Mihalich has had so-so squads, NCAA tournament teams and a couple of pretty bad years. The one constant has been the Purple Eagles' high entertainment factor. The team has been one of D-I's 100 fastest-paced squads every year since 2006, usually relying on a balanced inside attack on offense and an ability to turn opponents over on defense. The 2012 team runs through its three starting guards: Marvin Jordan, Antoine Mason and Juan'ya Green. Jordan and Mason are volume shooters who have attacked the hoop with gusto this season, while Green is a freshman point guard who has played exactly like you might expect him to (30 percent turnover rate). Niagara isn't likely to defeat South Dakota State, and they should be the least formidable opponent the Jackrabbits have faced thus far.
Thanks again to Asher. You can find him on Twitter @AsherFusco. Stay tuned for our preview of Sam Houston State tomorrow.