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December 21, 2012

Preview: Niagara @ Notre Dame

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Head coach: Joe Mihalich (15th year at Niagara) - 251-195 in 15th year at Niagara. Won MAAC regular season in 1999 and 2005, and MAAC tournament in 2005 and 2007. Best season came in 2008-09 when the Purple Eagles were 26-9. Niagara was just 23-42 the last two seasons under Mihalich, who played at LaSalle where he served as an assistant coach prior to his hiring at Niagara in 1998. Also coached at DeMatha Catholic High School, Mike Brey's alma mater.

You should know: That after finishing seventh in the 10-team Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) last season, the Purple Eagles were projected to finish third this year (behind Loyola-Maryland and Manhattan) by Athlon Sports…After losing five of their first seven games, Niagara has won two in a row and three of the last four…Niagara opened MAAC play on Nov. 28 with an 83-72 loss at Iona when they shot just 6-of-23 from three-point range while allowing the Gaels 12-of-26 shooting from beyond the arc. The Purple Eagles bounced back a week later with a huge 62-61 win at Loyola (Md.), which went 24-9 in 2011-12…Niagara is tied for 81st nationally in scoring with a 73.5 average while sitting 311th in scoring defense at 75.1…Notre Dame and Niagara have a common opponent. The Purple Eagles defeated St. Francis (Pa.), 86-69, on Nov. 13. Eleven days later, the Irish defeated the Red Flash, 69-52…Five of the 11 players listed on Niagara's roster are from Philadelphia…Notre Dame has played Niagara twice before - 96 years apart. Notre Dame won at Niagara, 30-20, on Feb. 15, 1909. The Irish won at home against the Purple Eagles, 80-59, on Feb. 21, 2005.

Top losses: No significant losses.

Top players: Leading the high-scoring Purple Eagles is 6-foot-3, 210-pound sophomore Antoine Mason, the son of former NBA standout Anthony Mason. After averaging 15.1 points per game as a freshman, Mason has upped the ante to 19.2. He also averages 4.5 rebounds per game and is a .831 free-throw shooter (64-of-77). Mason tossed in 25 points in Sunday's victory over Vermont. He also scored 25 versus St. Francis (Pa.), and 24 points in back-to-back losses to Iona and Central Michigan.

Juan'ya Green is a 6-foot-3 sophomore who was the No. 2 scoring freshman in the country last year at 17.7 points per game. The MAAC freshman of the year converted 61 three-pointers in 2011-12. He's currently averaging 15.9 points and 4.8 assists per game. Green is Niagara's top three-point shooter with 21 converted on 59 attempts (.356). Green scored 28 points in the victory over New Mexico State and 23 in the loss to Buffalo. Four of Green's 19 points came in the final minute in the conference victory over Loyola (Md.).

Ameen Tanksley, a 6-foot-6, 200-pound sophomore, does a little bit of everything for the Purple Eagles. In addition to being the No. 3 scorer on the team at 10.3 points per game, he averages a co-team-high 5.5 rebounds per game, including 21 on the offensive end. He led Niagara in offensive rebounds as a freshman with 70. He's also a competent three-point shooter (14-of-39, .359).

Marvin Jordan, a 5-foot-11 junior, led the Purple Eagles in three-pointers made last year with an impressive 83. He's converted 20-of-59 from beyond the arc this year (.339) and is shooting .846 from the free-throw line (11-of-13). Jordan scored 17 points in the season-opener against Oregon State.

Six-foot-eight, 220-pound freshman T.J. Cline has made an instant impact, averaging 7.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. LaSalle transfer Devon White, a 6-foot-8, 240-pound senior, missed the first eight games following his recovery from an Achilles injury. He has started the last three games.

Niagara also gets support from 6-foot-3 junior Malcolm Lemmons (4.1 ppg., 14 offensive rebounds), 6-foot-4, 160-pound freshman Tahjere McCall (3.5 ppg., 3.1 rpg., 3.3 apg.), 6-foot-8, 210-pound senior Scooter Gillette (10 points vs. New Mexico State), and 6-foot-7, 220-pound junior Joe Thomas (15 offensive rebounds).

Prister's take: This is a very dangerous team for the Irish, who are playing their fourth game in seven days. Niagara is experienced, deep and athletic. The third youngest team in Division I basketball last year, they led the MAAC in three-pointers made and steals, and now have all the depth and quickness they need to give the Irish fits.

The Purple Eagles lack some size, but they compensate with tenacity (seven steals per game) and athleticism. They averaged 12.3 offensive rebounds per game last year and average 12.5 (138 total) so far this season. They like to let it fly from beyond the arc (22.4 attempts per game) and have several players capable of lighting it up. They also like to put it on the floor and penetrate, so Notre Dame's man-to-man defense will be put to the test.

Niagara has played a solid schedule up to this point, including an 88-71 loss to 11-1 Bucknell. The Purple Eagles' 62-61 victory at Loyola (Md.) - the projected winner of the MAAC - was a significant accomplishment that began a 3-1 run following a three-game losing streak.

The Irish better come prepared to play Friday night at Purcell Pavilion, where they have won 44 of the last 45 games. The Purple Eagles represent one of the more challenging non-conference foes to come into Notre Dame in December.

With the Irish chomping at the bit to begin Big East play, the hunch here is that Notre Dame has its hands full with the Purple Eagles from start to finish. If they don't get solid guard play, which has been hit and miss lately - particularly with Jerian Grant trying to find his groove/consistency - this one could remain in doubt through the last media timeout.

Pointspread: Notre Dame by 16 ½
Prister's Prediction: Notre Dame 84, Niagara 75
Prister's record: 11-1 straight up; 7-2 vs. points


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