Canisius basketball crashing to rock bottom?

When Iona and Fairfield traveled to Buffalo early in December, Canisius coach Tom Parrotta commented on how it might be good just to get the league’s juggernauts out of the way, referring to the two  not as the best and second-best teams in the league, but as 1A and 1B.

Now, eight weeks later, the Fairfield Stags (5-3) look up from fourth place while the Iona Gaels, which blew an 18-point lead at Siena last weekend, cling to their share of the conference lead. At 7-2, Iona is in a three-way tug-of-war for first place with Loyola Maryland and Manhattan, both of whom visit the Koessler Athletic Center this weekend.

Griffs, meet 1C and 1D.

A meeting with the unlikely league-leaders (Loyola was a distant third in the MAAC’s preseason poll; Manhattan was eighth) is the last thing Canisius needs. The team is sliding worse than a freshman driver in a snowstorm and shows no signs of regaining control.

One year removed from celebrating its first season in a decade without a losing record, Canisius is now 11 games below .500 before the end of January and needs to win out the remainder of its schedule to break even in-conference.

The Griffs (4-15, 1-9 MAAC) were thoroughly embarrassed on their home court last Thursday by the Purple Eagles, whose lineup of freshmen and sophomores showed the sellout crowd of 2,196 what a group of promising recruits looks like.

Gaby Belardo started the game red hot. It looked like it could be the beginning of one of those Canisius-Niagara rivalry performances where one player takes his game to another level and steals the show. Three minutes and 13 seconds in, he already had 10 points and the Griffs led 12-4.

Then they forgot to play the rest of the half.

Marvin Jordan came off the bench for Niagara and turned the tide with 12 straight points – four consecutive 3-pointers – during a 12-minute stretch of basketball when Niagara tripled Canisius, 33-11.

The Griffs made things interesting in the second half, as they tend to, cutting it to a two-possession game at 58-53 with 5:45 to go. But after spending themselves to close the gap, Canisius – whose bench played only 18 minutes and was outscored by Niagara’s, 25-0 – ran out of gas.

Alshwan Hymes, usually stoic, was visibly upset on the court and spoke at length about one of his team’s overarching problems in the press conference.

“I think that’s something that shows up in a lot of our games: We get down early by a lot of points and we end up coming back, getting it to single digits, and then it comes down to a string of plays [where] we just can’t convert on the offensive end and can’t get stops on the defensive end and it goes right back,” he said. “By that time it’s too late. Those strings where we get the score down to single digits and we start coming back, people can see how good of a team we can be. Once we can put 40 minutes of that together, we’ll be at the top of this league.”

Parrotta said that his team has “some holes to fill, obviously” and “until we figure out ways to score points from the guys who need to score points, we’re going to find ourselves in this type of position.”

He may not have expected that position to come again so soon, just three days later when the Griffs traveled to Rider.

Canisius was held scoreless for the first five minutes while Rider built a 10-0 lead. A 3-pointer from Belardo with 7:44 left in the first half brought the Blue and Gold back within one possession at 19-16, but the Broncs then ripped off a 15-0 run that the Griffs would never recover from.

Canisius was nearly doubled at halftime, 43-22, and the 21-point deficit matched its largest at the break this season. The Broncs literally were twice as good as Canisius in the first half, making double the amount of field goals (12 to six) and missing only half as many (13 to 26).

A 12-0 run in the second half put Rider up 30 points, 79-49, before it coasted to a 24-point win. Harold Washington hit 9 of 15 shots to finish with 22 points and five assists while Belardo hit 7 of 15 for 19 points. Hymes finished with 10 points but made only two of his 14 3-point attempts.

Rider came into the game ahead of Canisius in the MAAC standings but both teams had had their share of struggles this season, losing 14 games apiece. Yet, even on a three-game losing streak, it was Tommy Dempsey’s squad that came out ready to play and improved to 4-5 in the MAAC and 7-14 overall.

How far have the Griffs fallen? The Relative Performance Index (RPI), one of the few measures that effectively compares all of the country’s 344 Division I teams against each other, ranks Canisius 329th overall – 15th last. The teams Canisius beat this year are no great shakes, either: First was Longwood (6-13, RPI 301), then South Dakota (4-12, 279), then Binghmaton (0-20, 343) and finally Marist (7-12, 278). It’s not even that the Griffs have played tough competition – their strength of schedule ranks 327th.

Think of the RPI in another way: Imagine that each team in the country represents one mile (the distance from the KAC to Lyons Hall and back). If the Griffs stood on their court, the nation’s Number One team in the RPI (Syracuse) would have its feet planted in the Atlantic Ocean near Atlantic City, N.J., while the worst-ranked team in the country (UC Davis) would be so close that it wouldn’t even reach Niagara’s campus.