By Andrew Kahn
This past April, longtime Niagara coach Joe Mihalich was hired by Hofstra. Two key players from Niagara’s first-place MAAC team last season decided to follow him. Others transferred elsewhere. Antoine Mason waited, unsure of what to do. Eventually Niagara hired Chris Casey from LIU Post. Casey had coached Antoine’s older brother, Anthony, as an assistant at St. John’s, so Antoine called his brother for advice. “He told me Coach Casey was a great guy. I trust my brother so I stayed.” Just like that, the conference’s second leading scorer was staying put.
Mason, a 6’3”, 210-pound shooting guard, has taken his scoring to new levels this season: His 29.4 points per game lead all of Division I. He matched his career high with 35 in a win over St. Peter’s on Sunday. The redshirt junior—he missed all but three games his first season due to a foot injury—has an impressive midrange game and uses his strength to get to the basket. He’s capable of making difficult shots in traffic or getting to the foul line. Through 10 games, he has shot 122 free throws. “He scores in a variety of ways, which is what makes him a tough matchup,” Casey says.
Others have made Mason aware that he’s leading the country in scoring, but he doesn’t give it much thought. “In the summer when I found out people were leaving, I had to go back to the drawing board and amp up my game. I couldn’t come back as the same player. I worked a lot without having the ball in my hands,” he says, which has helped him this season when teams have tried box-and-ones and other junk defenses to try and slow him.
Casey had gotten rave reviews of Mason from the previous coaching staff, and he’s been impressed with his leadership and willingness to learn. “He wants to be coached and he wants to be a complete player.” Mason says he’s been working on his defense and rebounding (he’s averaging 3.7 boards a game), two areas he and Casey say must improve in order for Niagara to do the same. The Purple Eagles are 2-8 (though 1-1 against the MAAC) and have been allowing opponents to shoot too high of a percentage and grab too many offensive rebounds. Casey says his team took steps in the right direction in Sunday’s 61-56 win.
Mason expects Niagara to get better as the chemistry improves, which can only come with time. He says teammates looked to him and a couple of others last season for guidance. Given the roster upheaval, he’s now the main guy. “I want to be that person everyone can rely on. I set the tone in practice and in games. Off the court, I hang out with everybody and make sure everybody’s cool. I keep a positive vibe. We’ve struggled early but if we stay together that will help us in the long run.”
Andrew Kahn is a contributor to CBS Local Sports who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at AndrewJKahn.com. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.