Tonawanda News — The Niagara men’s basketball team has shown very well early in the 2013-14 season. The Purple Eagles lost a close game to a Big East team (Seton Hall) in their season opener on Nov. 9 before beating Big 4 rival Buffalo for the first time in four years in their home opener on Nov. 13.
NU (1-1) has averaged 82 points per game. The Purps have taken 45 free throws per game, and 37.2 percent of their points have come from the charity stripe — best in the country. They’re third in the nation in free throw rate (79.6), according to KenPom.com, and junior Antoine Mason is fourth in the country in scoring at 29.5 points per game.
Two games is hardly enough of a sample size to determine if these trends can continue. Much more will be known about the Purple Eagles by Sunday, though, after NU plays on three consecutive nights at Kent State starting today as part of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.
The Purps take on USC Upstate at 5 p.m. today, Western Carolina at 5 p.m. Friday and the host Golden Flashes at 7:30 p.m. Saturday as they play out their Classic schedules. The loss to Seton Hall was also a Classic game and eliminated the Purps from championship contention.
First-year NU coach Chris Casey likes to push the pace, which may be an issue in back-to-back-to-back games with a roster that includes seven freshmen and centers around a player (Mason) who sits second in the nation in percentage of minutes played at 98.8 percent. Casey said he won’t make any lineup or rotation changes, at least right away.
“We want to play the first game (tonight) like it’s the only game,” he said. “I like that we have this opportunity (to play on three straight nights) because that’s what we’re going to see in March.”
Casey has been happy with the way his team has played through its first two games. He raved about his players’ compete level and cited stats on rebounding margin (NU is plus-8 on the year) and opponent field goal percentage (42.2) as positives.
He also said he’d like his team to be more careful with the ball. NU has averaged 16 turnovers per game and has a 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio so far. Not wasting possessions will be key against the Spartans (1-2), who boast two of the top three leading scorers in the Atlantic Sun Conference in forward Torrey Craig (21.3) and guard Ty Greene (17.7).
“You can’t give them extra possessions and extra chances to score,” Casey said. “They’re too good.”
Follow Niagara Gazette sports reporter Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler for updates on your local teams.