When you get a No. 7 seed against a No. 10 seed, tip-off isn't until 9:45 p.m., and the two teams in question come from six hours away (and that's at warp speed on I-90), it's going to be a sparse crowd. Full credit to the smattering of Canisius students who made their voices heard, despite their team coming in with a 1-17 (and 5-24 overall) record.
This was a rivalry game, although 300 miles removed from Buffalo and two relatively poor teams kind of numbs that a little bit.
With the MassMutual Center somewhat deserted, I walked around for a good place to sit, got the requisite pretzel and soda, found an open section, and got a seat. I looked to the section to the right and saw the Loyola squad, who would play the winners on Saturday night. In the front was newly crowned MAAC Coach of the Year Jimmy Patsos and his assistants.
I was too far away to hear what he was saying and writing, obviously, but I've done some amateur scouting, let's see what my report would look like for Niagara, who eventually saw off a game, but inferior, Canisius squad, 80-70, in a game that ended just before midnight:
The Purple Eagles, under veteran (14th season) coach Joe Mihalich, are extremely young, but very athletic. They like to press (2-2-1), especially early in games, and play almost exclusively a 2-3 zone, although it's not a rec-league zone, they get out and try to create havoc in the halfcourt with steals (they got 11 in this game) and transition points.
But they looked vulnerable inside, freshman Joe Thomas was in the middle for much of the game, but he's only 6-foot-7, and with everyone else running around, that should be somewhere where Patsos and the Greyhounds can exploit them.
Offensively, they like to shoot, and quickly. Canisius went mostly zone, which Loyola will almost certainly not, but the Purple Eagles were 10-for-27 from three-point range. First and foremost on the Patsos scouting report almost certainly was MAAC Rookie of the Year Juan'ya Green, who is a tremendous offensive player, scoring 20 in this game, including four #superhoops.
But all five Niagara starters were in double figures, and the feisty young squad had as many offensive rebounds (18) as defensive rebounds, so grabbing those long rebounds off three-point misses will likely be a big factor as well. The bench only had a total of 34 minutes, 22 of them from sophomore sharp-shooter Marvin Jordan, so fatigue could be a factor as well Saturday night.
(Antoine Mason, Anthony's son, is a starter for Niagara, and Anthony was in the house, leading me to wonder if he saw Rik Smits, who was at the first game. All we needed at that point is Reggie Miller and Spike Lee, and we could have a classic NBA reunion.)
By halftime, Patsos left the scouting to his assistant, as - somewhat in disguise with a baseball cap - he talked to some people he knew (and obviously there were a lot of them, even with the attendance somewhere in the hundreds by this point).
Canisius, led by junior Harold Washington, made a couple of runs, getting as close as seven twice, including on a three-pointer by Gaby Belardo with 1:05 left. But - as Patsos and his staff probably suspected - it will be Niagara against Loyola in the quarterfinals.
The Purple Eagles actually won at Loyola on Jan. 2, a game that saw Mason score 18 points and add four steals, and then had to come from behind to win the return meeting, using that influence inside to take control in the second half.
If Patsos was worried (and this is surely a big weekend for him, his best chance to make the NCAA Tournament), he didn't show it. At halftime, I wandered around to check out a little more of the not-so-brand new MassMutual Center and see what the MAAC had to offer as the hour got later.
As I turned the corner, there was Patsos and his wife heading out. The second chance had arrived. This time I was ready.
"Congratulations, Coach", I said.
(Interestingly, none of the last three MAAC Coaches of the Year are in Springfield this weekend. In 2011, Ed Cooley captured it for Fairfield, he went to Providence. In 2010, it was Ralph Willard, who immediately left Iona for Seton Hall. In 2009, Fran McCaffery went from Siena to Iowa. Don't see Patsos leaving.)
"Thanks a lot, it was a great year."
"I do a little work for Kyle Whelliston's website, so I've seen you guys a couple of times."
"Oh, yeah? Kyle's a great man."
(I hope I wasn't being presumptuous next. I'm sure even here, Patsos has his detractors.)
"Most of the guys from the site are rooting for you. They want to see you in the Big Dance."
"That really means a lot. We'll do our best."
Three days, three wins. Eight teams left. Will Loyola be the one?
Crap, I forgot to give Patsos my scouting report. You think he needs it?
NIAGARA 80, CANISIUS 70 03/02/2012
CANISIUS 5-25 (1-17) -- G. Belardo 6-15 4-4 18; H. Washington 9-16 4-10 24; C. Manhertz 2-3 0-1 4; A. Hymes 5-8 4-5 16; R. Groves 1-3 1-2 4; J. Heath 1-1 0-0 2; K. Bleeker 1-2 0-0 2; T. Funk 0-0 0-0 0; F. Milian 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-48 13-22 70. NIAGARA 14-18 (8-10) -- J. Green 6-12 4-4 20; A. Mason 3-10 4-7 10; A. Tanksley 4-9 3-4 14; J. Thomas 6-9 3-6 15; M. Lemmons 2-8 8-10 12; M. Jordan 2-8 0-0 6; J. Turner 1-2 0-0 3; S. Gillette 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-58 22-31 80.
Three-point goals: CANI 7-17 (H. Washington 2-5; G. Belardo 2-6; A. Hymes 2-3; R. Groves 1-3), NIAG 10-27 (M. Jordan 2-7; M. Lemmons 0-3; A. Mason 0-2; J. Green 4-7; A. Tanksley 3-6; J. Turner 1-2); Rebounds: CANI 25 (H. Washington 6), NIAG 32 (A. Tanksley 10); Assists: CANI 12 (A. Hymes 4), NIAG 19 (M. Jordan 5); Total Fouls -- CANI 25, NIAG 16; Fouled Out: CANI-C. Manhertz; NIAG-None.