NIAGARA FALLS, NY. — After the Christmas break, college basketball is once again in full swing. Conference play is officially upon us, and more conferences get underway on Friday as the 2017 calendar year continues to wind down.
For our Game of the Day, we could have gone several different routes. First, there are the easy choices. Friday’s slate features match-ups like the Louisville Cardinals taking on the Kentucky Wildcats, or a top 25 battle between the Baylor Bears and Texas Red Raiders. Teams from the Patriot League also begin conference play, and there are some intriguing non-conference games on tap as well.
Instead of taking the easy way out, we turned our focus to the MAAC, where a pair of top contenders square off in what promises to be a great game from both sides.
Many have projected the Niagara Purple Eagles to be a top contending team in the conference after a down year in 2016-17. A veteran back court duo and a pair of emerging star forwards have expectations around the Purple Eagles high this season. On the flip side, the Iona Gaels are considered a front-runner yet again in 2017-18, especially after loading up on talent via the transfer market in the off-season.
Friday’s game will be a good indicator as to where both teams stand as 2017 comes to an end, and as the grind of conference play gets underway.
Here’s what you need to know in advance of the MAAC opener for both Iona and Niagara in Niagara Falls, NY on Friday night.
It’s been an up and down start to the season for the Purple Eagles. They opened the year with a road win over the St. Bonaventure Bonnies, then followed that up with three straight losses. They have wins over talented teams like the Army West Point Black Knights and the New Hampshire Wildcats, and a five-point loss against the high-powered UT Arlington Mavericks.
Now, the Purple Eagles enter conference play riding a three game winning streak, and two of those wins have come away from home. At 7-6 overall, Niagara emerged from a challenging non-conference schedule with a record that’s above .500, and they’ll be looking to continue their recent stretch of hot play against the Gaels inside the Gallagher Center.
The back court duo of Kahlil Dukes and Matt Scott have been leading the way this season on offense for the Purple Eagles. Scott is averaging a team-high 23.9 points per game, and ranks sixth in the country in scoring entering Friday’s games. Dukes isn’t far behind Scott, averaging 21.9 points per game to rank 17th in the nation. Both average more than three assists per game, while Scott also ranks second on the team with 7.7 rebounds per night out.
The Purple Eagles have arguably the top scoring tandem in the country, but need others to step up on offense if they want to contend in the MAAC. Dukes and Scott are the only two players averaging double-digit points per game for Niagara this season, with Marvin Prochet ranking third with 8.2 points per contest.
On the flip side, the Iona Gaels have used a balance offensive attack through their first 12 games of the season. While they come in with a 6-6 record overall this season, they have four players averaging double-digit points per game, and seven players who are averaging more than 20 minutes per game.
Leading the way for the Gaels is their own back court tandem, consisting of junior Rickey McGill and senior Deyshonee Much. McGill leads the Gaels in scoring, averaging 13.3 points to go along with 5.3 assists per game, while Much ranks third on the team with 11.3 points to go along with 4.4 rebounds per game. On the wing, E.J. Crawford is averaging 12.1 points per contest, and his size and shooting ability adds some versatility to the lineup for Tim Cluess’ crew.
Iona has become a popular landing spot for graduate transfers, and this past off-season was no different. They added forward TK Edogi (9.1ppg, 7.0rpg) from the Tulsa Golden Hurricane, and Zach Lewis (10.2ppg, 2.9rpg) from the Massachusetts Minutemen. Both players have added a wealth of experience and talent on both ends of the floor to the rotation for the Gaels, and have Iona as arguably the team to beat in the MAAC this season.
Players to Watch
Iona – Deyshonee Much
After his scoring production dipped 3.5 points per game as a junior in comparison to his sophomore season, Deyshonee Much has regained his form on the offensive end of the floor in 2017-18. He is averaging 11.3 points per game, while shooting 38.2% from the floor, a mark he hit last season. As he has done over his career, Much has continued to become a more well-rounded player on both ends of the floor. He is averaging career-highs in both rebounds (4.4) and assists (3.0) per game as a senior. Much has scored in double-figures on nine occasions, while recording at least three assists seven times. Against a Niagara team who struggles to keep teams off the scoreboard, Much will look to have another strong game on the offensive end and lead the Gaels to a MAAC opening victory.
Niagara – Marvin Prochet
Much of the attention surrounding Niagara focuses on the back court duo of Scott and Dukes. However, up front, Marvin Prochet is riding a three-game hot streak, and he will look to continue that against Iona on Friday night. Over the Purple Eagles’ three game winning streak, Prochet has posted three straight games with double digit points, and posted a double-double (17 points, 12 rebounds) in Niagara’s win over the Cornell Big Red before the Christmas break. He is averaging 13.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game over the three game streak, up from his seasonal averages of 8.2 points and 7.8 rebounds. The 6’7” Prochet is one half of Niagara’s rising front court tandem, along with fellow junior Dominic Robb. The Purple Eagles will need a big game from each of them if they want to knock off the Gaels to end 2017 on a high note.
Niagara’s offense averaged close to 84 points per game, and is among the nation’s top scoring offenses through the first part of the season (35th). However, they struggle at keeping their opponents off the scoreboard, allowing an average of 87.1 points per contest (347th). If a team allows more than they score, winning games will be tough.
The Gaels don’t score as much as the Purple Eagles, averaging an even 76.0 points per contest. With that said, they have a more balanced offensive attack, as four players are averaging double-digits this season. For Niagara, if either Dukes or Scott doesn’t have their A-game on any given night, the offense for the Purple Eagles takes a big step back.
On Friday night, the balanced attack of the Gaels will propel them to a road victory in their MAAC opener. Late free throws will seal the deal, and bring an end to Niagara’s three game winning streak.
Iona – 87
Niagara – 80
– T. Bennett