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Howard Simon's Blog

Big Four basketball in good hands

I thought it would be nice to take a short break from obsessing over whether or not the Sabres are going to miss the playoffs for the fourth time in six years and when/if the Bills will draft the next "quarterback of the future."

I wanted to point out the tremendous coaching jobs being done by the quartet who oversee the Big Four men's basketball programs.

Joe Mihalich is once again working his magic on Monteagle Ridge.  Niagara University wrapped up its first ever outright MAAC title over the weekend which means the Purple Eagles have clinched, at the very least, a berth in the National Invitation Tournament.  Niagara will be the top seed at this weekend's MAAC tournament which rewards an automatic NCAA bid to the winner.

In this his 15th season at Niagara, Mihalich has guided 5 teams to at least a share of the MAAC regular season crown and will lead his team into a fifth post season tournament.  The Purple Eagles earned an NCAA bid in 2005 and 2007 and played in the NIT in 2004 and 2009.

NIagara was coming off back to back losing seasons and were picked to finish fifth in the pre-season poll due mainly to the fact that Mihalich had a very young team.  But a pair of very talented sophomores, Juan'ya Green and Antoine Mason, led NU back to the top of the conference for the first time since 2005.

Green averaged 17 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds while playing an average of 37 minutes a game which is eighth best in the country. Green became the second sophomore in NU history to reach one thousand points in his career and is one of 25 finalists for the Mid-Major Player of the Year award.

Mason led the team in scoring at 18 points a game and became the third sophomore at Niagara to reach the thousand point mark.  He missed four games late in the season but the Purple Eagles still held off the likes of Loyola, Rider, Iona and Canisius for the regular season crown.

The winningest coach in MAAC history, Mihalich should get consideration for Coach of the Year honors but there's no question the award should be given to his counterpart at Canisius, Jim Baron.

When Baron was hired by Canisius, I thought it was a great move because he had a track record of winning at St. Francis(PA), St. Bonaventure and Rhode Island.  

All Baron did was lead Canisius to the third biggest improvement in division one with 13 more wins than last season.  Baron inherited a program that was an embarrassing 1-17 in MAAC play last season and led them to an 11-7 league finish and a five seed in the upcoming tournament.

The 11 MAAC wins are their most since 1999 and the 18 overall wins represent the Griffs highest total since 2001.  Canisius had gone 13 consecutive seasons without a winning record in the conference and then Baron showed up on Main Street.  

His season highlights include their first win at Niagara in ten years and wins over NU, Bona and UB in the same season for the first time since 2001.

Baron instituted an entertaining, up tempo style of ball.  The Griffs are third in the MAAC in points per game and second in the country in three pointers made per game.

Baron's son Billy, who transferred to the college to play for his Dad, led the team in scoring and led the conference in assists and should be named All MAAC this week. Like Green at Niagara, Billy Baron is a finalist for the Mid Major Player of the Year honor.

If his father wins the Coach of the Year award, he would be the first Canisius coach to receive the honor since John Beilein back in 1994.

Canisius will play fourth seed Iona in the quarterfinals Saturday at 4:30.  The Griffs and Gaels split the season series with the home team winning both times.

Niagara will play at 2:30 on Saturday against either (9)Marist or (8)Siena.  The Purple Eagles swept the season series from both the Red Foxes and the Saints.

The work of Mark Schmidt at St. Bonaventure and Reggie Witherspoon at the University at Buffalo should not go unnoticed.

Schmidt  resuscitated a Bonnies program that crashed and burned after NCAA sanctions, leading them to the NCAA tournament last season, the school's first appearance since Baron was working the sidelines in 2000.

But Andrew Nicholson went on to the NBA, where he plays for the Orlando Magic and Da'Quan Cook headed overseas for his professional career.  The cupboard wasn't exactly bare but that's some pretty sizable shoes to fill.  Yet the Bonnies are 14-13 overall and 7-7 in the Atlantic Ten which is the seventh rated conference in division one.  

Over at UB, the Bulls were coming off a 20 win season and best ever 12-4 record in the Mid American Conference.  But  Witherspoon lost three starters and four of the top five scorers(58% of the offense) to graduation.  

Yet the Bulls are 7-7 in MAC play, which is tied for third in the East and tied for fifth best in the league.  UB just recorded its first ever win over a ranked program, knocking off 24th ranked Akron this past weekend.  The Zips had been unbeaten in the MAC games and had the longest winning streak in the country.

For the first time in the 21 year history of the Big Four, all four programs are in good coaching hands at the same time.

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Topics : Sports
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Locations : BuffaloNuRhode Island
People : Andrew NicholsonAntoine MasonBilly BaronGreen MasonIonaJim BaronJoe MihalichJohn BeileinJuanLoyolaMark SchmidtQuan CookReggie WitherspoonSt. Bonaventure

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