It’s been a rough eight years to be a Niagara fan.
After making the NCAA Tournament twice during the early 2000’s, the Purple Eagles haven’t come close to making it back during the past five years.
They’ve posted losing records in six of their last eight seasons, saw their former head coach, Joe Mihalich spurn them for Hofstra and started the Chris Casey era 32-96 during his first four years running the program.
But things took a step forward last season. Led by Co-MAAC Player of the Year Kahlil Dukes and senior Matt Scott, Niagara posted their first winning record in five years, finishing 19-14 overall.
The Purple Eagles went 12-6 in conference play, making the CIT, their first postseason appearance since the 2013 NIT.
But with Dukes and Scott moving on, there were plenty of questions about this year’s squad and if they would be able to build off of last year’s success.
The answer? So far, so good.
It hasn’t been pretty at times but you can see Chris Casey guiding the Niagara program in the right direction.
The Purple Eagles opened the season with their second consecutive win over St. Bonaventure. A few days later, they picked up a road win over a Wyoming team coming off a 20-win season.
But none of that even comes close to Niagara’s 71-70 road victory over Pittsburgh, the Purple Eagles first win over a major conference team since St. John’s in 2007.
“I think we’ve had some good wins,” said Casey, “Those are wins that show that we have some potential to be very good in the conference.”
Casey has the Purple Eagles at 7-6 overall, the only team in the MAAC with a winning record heading into conference play.
Niagara can thank senior leader Marvin Prochet for their solid start. Casey hyped the 6’7” forward out of Brooklyn every chance he had last season but thought many overlooked him.
“I started talking to anyone in the media that would listen last December about Marvin,” said Casey, “ As Marv does, he used the fact that he wasn’t selected as (All-MAAC) as jet fuel.”
Prochet won’t be overlooked this year. He’s averaging 18.2 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
“He’s putting up all-conference numbers and possible player of the year numbers,” said Casey.
He’s joined by James Towns and Dominic Robb as the only Niagara scorers averaging in double-figures.
Towns is dynamic with the ball while Robb is a “block machine.”
Also helping the Purple Eagles has been the emergence of a solid group of underclassmen. Most fans were already aware of sophomore guard Keleaf Tate. He’s taken a nice step forward, hitting a game-winning three earlier this season versus Cornell.
Freshmen guards Raheem Solomon and Marcus Hammond have also impressed during their opportunities. Their development is giving hope to Niagara fans wanting the Purple Eagles to sustain their recent success over the next 2-3 years.
“I expect them all to play well,” said Casey, “I can’t say that I’m surprised.”
Despite all of their potential, Niagara is still wildly inconsistent.
You never know which Purple Eagles team you’re going to see on a nightly basis. At times, they play too quickly, which can help or hurt depending on the game situation.
Niagara erased an early double-figure deficit Monday afternoon against Albany, only to relinquish the lead late in a heartbreaking home loss against the Great Danes.
Despite the loss, things are looking up for Chris Casey’s club. The MAAC is wide-open and the Purple Eagles have the talent to finish near the top of the league.
“We’re looking forward to conference play,” said Casey, “This league is always tough. It’s full of good players and good coaches.”
Niagara opens up MAAC play on Saturday at Manhattan before taking on Fairfield two days later.
While it’s too early to project how the Purple Eagles will fare this year, look for them to continue getting better as the season continues.
I like this Niagara squad and in time, I think many Purple Eagles fans across the area will as well.