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Know Your Non-conference Opponent: Niagara

The Purple Eagles open their season in Cintas before heading up the road to take on another Ohio opponent.

NCAA Basketball: Niagara at Syracuse
Guess that two-sport star!
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe this is the season things get back to normal? I’ll be honest, probably not. I’ve been keeping an ear to the ground, and it doesn’t sound like things are going to be a ton better this year than they were last year. Still, forward we go. There will be basketball in Cintas this year, and the first team to come in will be the Purple Eagles of Niagara.

For whatever you can draw from the 2020-21 season, it’s probably reasonable to infer that Niagara was not particularly good. They played one KenPom A-tier game and got clubbed in it, falling by 30 to Syracuse. At no point in the season did they sport an above-.500 record, though they did follow their season-opening 0-3 stretch by going 3-0 and then splitting conference series with Marist and Rider. That was probably the high-water mark though, as they went 4-6 down the stretch and lost a conference tournament game to Iona that they trailed 51-27 but cut to 65-61 with 90 seconds left.

Greg Paulus is entering his third season as the head coach at Niagara. He spent some time as an assistant at Ohio State and Louisville, where he wasn’t retained when the Mack administration began. He inherited the head job at Niagara in October 2019 when Patrick Beilein stepped down for personal reasons just a couple of weeks before the season began.

Into those inauspicious circumstances stepped Paulus, and his career hasn’t gotten any easier as his first two seasons in charge have been two of the weirdest years on record. He took Niagara from 300th in the KenPom two years ago to 250th last year, a rate of improvement that should have him on top of the world in 5 seasons. It’s tough to say too much about his style beyond the fact that his teams play ridiculously slowly (289 and 329 in tempo) and almost never turn the ball over (22nd and 11th in TO%). They’ve been bad at offense and worse at defense, but they have been consistently okay at forcing turnovers.

Key departures

Forward Kobi Nwandu put up 14.6/3.1/2.6 per game last year and led Niagara in scoring and three-point percentage, but he graduated and left school to pursue professional options. Losing him was not an insignificant bump in the road for the Purple Eagles, but it is the only one in this particular venue.

Key returnees

So many key returnees. The official roster lists five grad students, three seniors, and a redshirt junior. This is an extremely veteran group.

Marcus Hammond leads the returnees in scoring, having posted a game line of 12.7/5.8/3.0 last season. He’s a volume scoring 6’2” guard who did it on an ugly EFG% of 40.7%, but he’ll keep trying until it goes in. His 3 assists per game led the team, as did his assist rate of 19.7% and his DReb% of 18.8%. Fellow guard Raheem Solomon posted 8.5/3.2/1.0 and had an ORtg of 101 on the nose. He’s a bit better of a shooter than Hammond and connected on 34% of his threes.

Better shooting still is Justin Roberts, a 5’10” gunner who put up 7.4/2.7/1.2 and hit 36.5% of his three-point attempts. He was just 4-17 from inside the arc and didn’t offer too much else. On the opposite end of the size spectrum, 6’8”, 220-pound forward Jordan Cintron went for 7.3/3.7/0.9 on .667/.000/.667 shooting. All but 5 of his made baskets came at the rim.

Leading the returning guys in rebounding are forwards Greg Kuakumensah and Nicholas Kratholm. Kuakumensah has kind of an interesting game; he put up a game line of 6.4/4.3/0.8, hit half of his mid-range jumpers, and shot a respectable 35.7% from deep. He also easily led the team with a 5.2% block rate. I’m intrigued by his stat line, not least because he shot well away from the rim but only 54.8% from the line. Kratholm is 6’9”, 220 and put up 5.4/4.1/0.8 on .500/.000/.590 shooting. He’s the team’s best offensive rebounder.

Incoming players

Sam Iorio is a 6’7” stretch four, most recently of South Alabama. He opened his career with a couple of solid years at American, hitting a total of 124 threes in his time there. He had more trouble finding a groove as a Jaguar (as I have just learned South Alabama is called), but he’s still a career 37.5% three-point shooter with good size and three years of D1 experience under his belt. He’ll fight for time in a crowded frontcourt.

Also suiting up will be 6’3” freshman guard Julian Mackey, late of Lakota West. He averaged 22 a game last year and set a school record with 525 total points on his way to OHSAA honorable mention. Joining him is 6’2” freshman guard Tahjae Hill, who set his school’s career scoring record with 1,953 points and averaged 27 per game as a senior.

Finally, 6’11” big man Touba Traore joins from Massanutten Military Academy and also Mali. Expect all three freshmen to play limited roles on such a veteran roster as they adapt to D1 ball.

Outlook

I think it’s a fool’s errand to try to draw too many conclusions from last season, but at the very least we can discern that Greg Paulus has kept his head above water since being throw into the deep end. They’ll set out primarily to pay the athletic department’s bills with an early-season swing through Ohio to play Xavier and OSU, but how they settle into the grind of MAAC play will determine the story of their season. If this is a game that we’re talking about in March, it’s almost certainly for the wrong reasons.