Team preview: Niagara

Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2003-04 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.

Updated: November 5, 2003, 3:30 PM ET
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After claiming two regular-season titles and rattling off five winning seasons in five years under Joe Mihalich, Niagara has established itself as a perennial contender in the MAAC.

With all five starters returning from a team that pushed Manhattan to the brink (and beyond) in an epic 82-81 double-overtime loss in a conference tournament semifinal game, barring injury or internal strife the Purple Eagles will be in the thick of things again this season.

"I think we have an interesting mix this year because we have five guys that are really experienced and talented," said Mihalich, who in July agreed to a contract extension through 2010. "Our hopes lie in how well the young people develop and provide us depth."

The talent and experience starts up front where Juan Mendez and James "Mook" Reaves form the most formidable big-man tandem in the league.

Mendez (18.4 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 1.3 spg, 1.2 bpg), a 6-7 junior from Montreal, enjoyed a breakout sophomore season where he led the MAAC in rebounding and field-goal percentage (.602) and finished third in scoring.

"He's become someone that everyone is talking about," Mihalich said. "He finishes as well as anybody I've ever been around."

Mendez, a first-team All-MAAC selection, gained additional experience playing for Team Canada in the Pan American Games over the summer, one reason he should be even more difficult to contain this season.

The other is Reaves.

Reaves (11.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.2 spg, 1.0 bpg), a 6-8 senior, was a first-team all-league choice last season, but has become a leader by doing a lot of the dirty work and letting his numbers take care of themselves.

"He's become an unsung hero," Mihalich said. "He just fills the stat sheet up. Mook's become our glue."

Reaves, who finished second in the conference in rebounding, has a big body that allows him to bang inside. He can handle the ball, shoot and pass away from the basket that which allows Niagara to run a devastating high-low set with Mendez.

"I love how well they play together," Mihalich said.

Senior Tremmell Darden (17.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.5 spg) creates even more problems for opponents. An athletic wing, Darden, ranked third in the MAAC in scoring and made second-team all-league. He can take the ball to the basket and stick the three.

"He's an explosive player," Mihalich said. "He can score a lot of points in a hurry."

James Mathis (2.8 ppg, 2.2 rpg) didn't post huge numbers while starting 22 games as a freshman last season, but the 6-4 swingman gained experience and does things to free up his teammates.

The backcourt is in very solid hands with juniors Alvin Crux and David Brooks returning.

The 6-1 Cruz (8.9 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 5.8 ppg) led the MAAC in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio while playing nearly 35 minutes per game.

"When he plays well our team plays well," Mihalich said. "He goes north and south as well as anyone in our league."

The 6-3 Brooks (10.6 ppg, 3.5 rpg) has a knack for delivering the big basket and has given the Purple Eagles a big lift off the bench the last two seasons.

"He can score," Mihalich said. "He puts points on the board and he's a winner."

Freshman Lorenzo Miles, a 6-0 point guard, should step in and give the Purple Eagles some valuable minutes this season. Miles (11.4 ppg, 2.9 apg, 1.6 spg) earned most valuable player honors in the title game while helping Gonzaga College High School to its first Washington, D.C. championship last season.

"I really think he can help us," Mihalich said. "He's a very versatile kid."

Sophomore Barry Durosier (2.8 ppg), a 6-1 sophomore, appeared in 18 games last season but will miss the first five games this year for not meeting an NCAA progress requirement. He could return for second semester.

The Purple Eagles return a couple of veteran backups in the frontcourt. Paul de Wet (0.8 ppg), a 6-10 senior, played in all 29 games last season, and Luis Villafane, another 6-10 senior, brings a shot-blocking presence back after missing all of last season with an injury.

J.R. Duffy, a 6-8 freshman, practiced with the Purple Eagles last season and is cut from the same mold as Manhattan's David Holmes-a power forward that rebounds well and can hit the outside shot.

Freshman Gregory Noel, an athletic 6-7 forward from Quebec, averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds at Laval High School. He also helped his prep school to the provincial semifinals and could be a bit of a sleeper.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

There is no doubt that Niagara's top players can compete with any team in the league. The question is whether the Purple Eagles will have the reserves to overcome injuries and foul trouble if and when they crop up.

Mendez and Reaves are a devastating inside combination in the MAAC, Darden can do it all and Cruz and Brooks are very solid guards. If players like Mathis, Miles and Duffy can step into their roles, it could be a special season on Monteagle Ridge.

Niagara's only NCAA Tournament appearance came in 1970 when Calvin Murphy carried the program to basketball's promised land. The Purple Eagles are far from a one-man team this season, and if they continue to realize that and stay healthy, March Madness could come calling again.

"I think it's going to be a lot of the intangibles," Mihalich said, explaining what it will take to reach the next level. "Our guys are going to have to be able to understand that it could be anybody's night on any night."

If they do, most nights will be Niagara's.

For the most comprehensive previews on all 327 Division I teams, order the 384-page "Bible" of college basketball, Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com.

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