By Jonah Bronstein
Niagara Gazette — “MAAC time!”
That’s been the post-practice chant for nearly two weeks at Niagara.
“It’s go time,” junior guard Marvin Jordan said as the Purple Eagles prepared to resume Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play tonight when they meet Marist at the Gallagher Center. “It’s time to refocus and get down to business.”
Niagara has been idle since its Dec. 21 loss at No. 21 Notre Dame, which put the Purple Eagles at 4-6 against what coach Joe Mihalich believes is the most challenging non-conference opposition he has scheduled in 15 seasons.
The Purple Eagles still have a non-conference games at Brown (Jan. 8) and a home BracketBuster game (Feb. 24) left to play, and actually began MAAC play with a pair of games last month, but it’s clear that in the new year, the season had entered a new phase.
“It’s the real season now,” leading scorer Antoine Mason said.
Canisius currently leads the MAAC at 2-0, and Niagara is one of eight teams that went 1-1 in the early going.
“In our league, you can beat anybody, and anybody can beat you,” Mihalich said.
The Purple Eagles were given the toughest slate of early games, having to travel to Iona and Loyola, two NCAA tournament teams from a year ago that are favored to contend for the conference title again. Niagara lost 83-72 at Iona on Nov. 28 but beat Loyola 62-61 on Dec. 5.
The defending champions were without their best player, Erik Etherly, in that game, but the Purple Eagles were missing Jordan and had yet to add senior transfer Devon White, a burly center who has transformed the team’s defense since debuting four games ago.
White is still getting his conditioning and timing back after offseason Achilles tendon surgery ruined his preseason, but is looking leaner and quicker in recent practices.
“He’s still ahead of where he should be, and we’re excited about that, but he’s not a finished product,” Mihalich said.
Marist (4-9) opened up MAAC play at home, beating Manhattan and losing to Canisius. In non-conference play, the Red Foxes beat Vanderbilt on a neutral floor and lost by six on the road against a Bucknell team that beat Niagara by 17 at the Gallagher Center. But they also lost to a Hartford team Niagara had little trouble with in a 75-59 win.
On Saturday afternoon, Niagara will host Fairfield (9-5), which enters tonight’s game at Canisius on a five-game win streak. The Purple Eagles will then hit the road to play at Brown, Saint Peter’s and Fairfield again next week.