By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
A couple of local college basketball coaches were in the news off the court this week, but for different reasons.
On Monday, Niagara dismissed Chris Casey from the task of leading the Purple Eagles. Casey had been around for six seasons, and he had received a contract extension just last year. It’s a tough business, especially when your team goes 13-19.
Then on Thursday, Nate Oats wrapped up negotiations to sign an extension with the University at Buffalo. That probably means he’s not going anywhere, at least for the time being.
Let’s connect those dots, and find out why what’s good for one school is bad for another.
Casey had the difficult job of replacing Joe Mihalich at Niagara. That’s because Mihalich won there; his record was 265-203 over 15 seasons. It’s surprising in hindsight that he stayed as long as he did, because winning is difficult at Niagara. If you can win there consistently, you can win elsewhere. Mihalich not only won games, but he did it in an entertaining, uptempo style. Still, when Hofstra finally called with a good-sized raise, the Purple Eagles couldn’t match it and Mihalich left.
Casey saw some players flee the school as soon as Mihalich departed, and others followed during the course of the new coach’s tenure. I have no insight as to why they left. Still, it’s easy to look at the landscape and see why it’s not easy to put together a winning program in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
If you walk into a MAAC game, it often has plenty of unfilled seats. That’s in spite of the fact that arena capacities are relatively small. That hurts the atmosphere. The facilities are often less than modern. Sometimes the games feel like walking into an old department store – something of an exercise in nostalgia. Many of the fans who show up – the ones with gray hair – remember more relevant times, when schools like Canisius and Niagara mattered at least on a regional basis. But once the rush to conference realignment began in the late 1970s, such schools got left behind.
Looking up at the rest
There were 353 teams that were ranked by RPI as of Friday. The worst team in the MAAC according to the numbers is Fairfield, No. 329, while St. Peter’s is 322. Niagara is at 309 and Canisius is at a relatively healthy 209. UB, by the way, is at 10. If the Bulls are a “mid-major” program, where does that put the MAAC schools?
When you are fighting for survival in college basketball, you have to take chances and cut corners. That means you have to accept players who come with questionable backgrounds, or who come from foreign lands with questionable resumes. Sometimes you get lucky and find a player who has cleaned up his act or was a late bloomer who was overlooked by the rest of the world. Sometimes you don’t.
In addition, such teams often play a series of road games in order to receive financial guarantees that help keep the program alive. Luckily, Canisius and Niagara haven’t had to resort to that, although they have played some games in, um, unusual locations. How do you get from Niagara Falls to Laramie, Wyoming? Ask the Purple Eagles.
As long as college basketball in Western New York was down, Niagara and Canisius had a chance to attract attention. Since the competition in the MAAC isn’t great, a winning team can lead to a chance at a postseason tournament – maybe even the Big Dance itself. Iona has done it four straight times, making it easy to wonder when Tim Cluess will be offered a bigger job. Let’s face it – without that ticket to the Big Dance, Niagara and Canisius would receive only slightly more attention than Buffalo State around here. But it’s there, and fans keep up just to see if lightning can strike.
Now, though, the rise of the University at Buffalo’s team has made it a little more difficult for those teams to thrive. The Bulls had a simply magical regular season, doing what was considered nearly impossible 10 years ago – winning a ton of games and selling out the building regularly.
The program had taken some steps under coach Bobby Hurley a few years ago, reaching the NCAA tournament in 2015. When he left, it was easy to wonder if the Bulls would fall back a bit. Instead, the opposite happened. UB turned into a monster by Mid-American Conference standards. Oats put together a senior class that will be remembered forever as the one that turned Buffalo into a college basketball town for at least a year.
When such seasons happen, the coach of that team usually is the subject of “recruiting” efforts from the big schools, which offer big piles of money to jump ship. It’s the nature of the business, and it was easy to wonder if Oats would look around at some point in the spring. After all, he’d never have a better chance to cash in on the team’s success – especially with five seniors departing.
But Oats bought a new house in the area relatively recently, and seems to be sincere when he says he likes it here. I’m guessing that he doesn’t want to think about a new job in the coming weeks, although something extraordinary like a trip to the Final Four might change everything. That means he’ll probably be on the bench next season, and maybe he’ll bring in enough good talent so that the Bulls will simply reload instead of rebuild.
There’s only so much attention (and dollars, to be honest) to put into college basketball in an area with the Bills and Sabres in town. UB is now sure to get a lion’s share of it. That’s going to make it even more difficult for the next coach at Niagara to put together a winning program.
The job opening at Niagara will receive plenty of applications, because there are only so many head coaching positions out there. It can be a first step to the Big Time; ask John Beilein about his stop at Canisius. But we should wish the new coach a lot of luck when he arrives, because he’ll need it.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)