By Ronak Patel
LAWRENCEVILLE, NJ – Niagara’s basketball coach Joe Mihalich is a lot of things.
He is often called the “Dean of MAAC Coaches”.
He’s won often in Lewison (NY) over his first 14 years patrolling the Purple Eagles’ sidelines.
Among them include a NCAA Tournament victory, two NCAA Tourney berths, two MAAC Tournament titles, two berths in the NIT and three regular-season MAAC crowns.
As evident from his playing days at LaSalle in the late 1970’s under the legendary Paul Westhead – he helped the Explorers to two NCAA appearances – he is as tough-minded of player he is now as coach.
But most importantly, he knows basketball, especially basketball history.
For a guy who was a longtime assistant at LaSalle and coached among others, 1990 National Player of the Year Lionel “L-Train” Simmons, Doug Overton and Tim Legler, he is Philly hoops and the game of basketball exemplified.
So when the coach popped in a tape – or could’ve been DVD – of NBA great and basketball hall of famer Dave Cowens to show his team, there was a lesson for his team, which has been well-noted to be one of the youngest teams in the country.
“They don’t even know who Dave Cowens is,” Mihalich said. “But Cowens realized that an early age — that if he didn’t come out and worked as hard as he could everyday; if he didn’t play as hard as he could every game — he became just an average guy and average player.”
Coaches are always constantly educating and imploring their teams, but for Mihalich, through historical and constant reinforcement, his efforts have paid off in a big way. This proud program founds itself back atop the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference standings with an impressive 10-3 mark in conference play.
“I know that speaks to our team,” Mihalich said of the Cowens’ reinforcement lesson. “If our guys don’t realize what Cowens did; that you need to come every day, every night to work and play, you are just going to be an average Joe.”
The Purple Eagles have been far from average Joe’s. They recently ripped off seven-straight wins, all conference tallies, and have positioned themselves to be major players come the MAAC Tournament in Springfield, Mass., starting March 7.
Niagara is the 40th youngest team in the country, one year after being one of the three youngest. Out of their top nine rotation guys, only three are upperclassmen, junior guard Malcolm Lemmons (3.9 points per game), junior guard Marvin Jordan (8.4 points) and senior transfer big man Devon White (5.6 points, 4.9 rebounds).
The bulk of their scoring and playmaking comes from a trio of sophomores – guard Antoine Mason (18.9 points, 4.3 rebounds), Juan’ya Green (16.3 points, 5.2 assists) and swingman Ameen Tanksley (11.6 points, team-leading 6.1 rebounds). The trio account for 62 percent of the team’s scoring (Niagara averaging 75.1 points a game) and 59 percent of the assists (182 dimes out of the team’s 310 total).
Despite recently dropping two straight, one via a heartbreaking 89-87 double overtime contest to Loyola and 72-69 setback to Rider on the road this past Thursday, Mihalich has been proud of his team’s resolve.
“I’m so proud of this team,” Mihalich said after the Rider game. “I’m a little disappointed and had some guys in place to do some things but didn’t come through.
Mihalich continued, “I’m proud of this team, we have an incredible will to win and toughness about us.”
Against Rider, Niagara was playing without Mason, who has scored in double-figures 30 straight games, the second longest streak in the nation to South Dakota State’s Nate Wolters (61). Mason was out with an ankle injury he sustained in the Loyola game.
Despite the injury setback and with Green struggling – he finished 1-of-16 from the field and scored seven points – Niagara was still in the game down the wire.
That was in large part due to Tanksley, who notched a career-high 29 points (previous high was 22 versus Siena last year). The swingman took it upon himself to shoulder the load.
“He was the only guy who matched the toughness of the Rider guys,” Mihalich said.
The coach trotted out a lineup that featured four Philly natives (Green, Tanksley, White, and McCall, a freshman) to go with Jordan, who hails from Illinois.
The toughness of this team and the very fiber of this team can be seen through how the Philly guys (little used Scooter Gillette also hails from Philly) have meshed with guys like Mason, Jordan and freshman big man TJ Cline, who hails from Texas and mother is Naismith Hall of Famer and Olympian Nancy Lieberman.
“They got that going that a little bit,” Mihalich said of team’s Philly connection to his own roots there. “They love the game and they are tough kids. They learn that and you can’t teach that. You can look for it but you can’t teach that.”
Mihalich continued, “We look for kids who compete and love to win and hate to lose. We want to be out there when the lights are on.”
The MAAC’s dean of coaches is good friends with former Siena coach and current Iowa head man Fran McCaffery. They both often discussed the merits of playing young guys early.
“He talked about playing those young guys,” Mihalich said. “He recanted to me, ‘we did it at Siena and let them pay their dues, take their lumps, it will pay off down the road.’
“We have a long way to go but it’s starting to pay off.”