Niagara hoops acclimating to life during COVID-19

Greg Paulus and his Niagara University men's basketball program are embracing the unknown during a year unlike any other in modern college basketball history.

Last year at this time, Paulus had just taken over the Purple Eagles as interim coach following the surprise resignation of Patrick Beilein. NU hosted Roberts Wesleyan for an exhibition on Friday, Nov. 1, and hit the road a week later to open the regular season at Drexel.

As of this Thursday, Paulus still wasn't ready to announce Niagara's non-conference schedule and was awaiting word on whether one of his players would be eligible this season.

Such is life during a global pandemic.

"For us, it's been more about the present moments and how we can be at our best in those moments, focusing in and developing our thoughts of what we can control," Paulus said. "That's something we've talked about, controlling what we can control during these times."

Championship competition in March and April isn't all COVID-19 took from college hoops programs. It also stole team workouts through the end of the spring semester and over the summer.

Rather than cap the 2019-20 season as they would have preferred, with a comprehensive look back at what worked and would could have used improvement, Paulus and his staff were forced, like everyone else, to adapt.

"Things happened abruptly with the season ending," Paulus said, adding that he was proud of his group for setting a program record with a 3.42 GPA in spring. "We did some FaceTime, some Zoom, text messaging and phone calls. ... For us to continue to develop those relationships, we tried to do that by computer as best we could."

The communication continued throughout the summer, though each player's ability to workout was largely dependent on where they lived during the pandemic. A player from New York, for example, would have had more trouble finding a gym than someone from a state with looser pandemic guidelines.

A semblance of normalcy has come with the fall, with players taking part in hybrid online and in-person courses while returning to team workouts. And while Paulus admitted it's taking some time for everyone to return to top form, Niagara has a pretty sizable leg up on much of its MAAC competition.

The Purple Eagles return 83.9% of their minutes played from last season's sixth-place team, well clear of the rest of the conference. Marist (71.8) and Canisius (69.4) are next, and they finished at the bottom of the 11-team conference.

The MAAC was gutted by transfers and graduations this offseason. Only five of the 17 All-MAAC players from last season, including NU's Marcus Hammond, are back. Seven All-MAAC players transferred to higher programs.

While teams like defending champ Siena (56.9% minutes returned) and Manhattan (36.3) brought in exciting transfers, and Iona (33.9) hired that Rick Pitino guy, they could face some hiccups with less time than normal to acclimate, not to mention fewer non-conference games.

"The experience of playing together and being in a system and having that college experience we had last year, we learned through the ups and downs of a season," Paulus said. "That's a great way to learn.

"I'm not really sure the full make-up of all the other MAAC teams, but having all the guys know each other, some of the things that will carry over from one year to the next, hopefully it can help us."

Paulus wouldn't say if his only incoming transfer, Longwood's Jordan Cintron, had applied for a waiver to be eligible this season, only that the Niagara was awaiting some news. "We do not have information right now on that," he said.

With or without the 6-foot-8, 220-pounder, the additions of 6-11 freshman Touba Traore and 6-6 senior Kobi Nwandu, who followed Beilein as a transfer from D-2 Le Moyne and sat out last year as a redshirt, will give Paulus and his staff a bit of flexibility it missed last year. Due to injury and transfer, the Purple Eagles played most of last season with 6-9 Nicholas Krathom and 6-6 Greg Kuakumensah as the only forwards on the roster. Six-foot-2 Steve Levnaic and 6-1 walk-on Damani Thomas played semi-regular minutes up front.

If Cintron is able to play, Niagara will have plenty of lineup options thanks to its plethora of shooters, three upperclassmen — Hammond, Justin Roberts and Shandon Brown — capable of playing point guard and an array of differently-talented bigs.

"It gives you a little more versatility," Paulus said. "You can play a little bit bigger, a little bit smaller, have a little more versatility to play in different ways in different segments in a game."

Paulus said Niagara is "still working through the schedule" and that he didn't have a timeline "at this point." The Purple Eagles do know the date of their MAAC opener, which is set for Dec. 8 at home against Monmouth.

Barring a shocking change, it will be without fans due to state guidelines on coronavirus. NU is offering fans the opportunity to pay $50 for a cardboard cut-out to be placed in a seat at the Gallagher Center through PurpleEagles.com.

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