WORCESTER, Mass. – Before the season, there were many who felt Siena was more than just a mid-major team to watch this season. With five starters back from the team that convincingly knocked off Vanderbilt in last season’s NCAA Tournament, the general feeling was that the Saints would be prohibitive favorites in the MAAC and even win a game or two in non-conference play against high-major schools. They certainly had enough games on the schedule for that to happen.
2008 is just about in the books, and the Saints haven’t quite done all of that. They lost three straight in Orlando at the Old Spice Classic, then lost at Pittsburgh earlier this month. The only loss among those four that might go down as a bad loss was the two-point decision they dropped to rebuilding Wichita State. But with no signature wins and just two possibilities left for one – at Kansas and possibly their BracketBusters game in February – the Saints look like a team that will most likely make the NCAA Tournament as an automatic qualifier. And given what Niagara and Fairfield have shown thus far as well as their respective personnel, they don’t quite look like the prohibitive favorites in their conference that some thought them to be.
There’s nothing to be ashamed of in all of that. In fact, the high preseason projections of them were probably a bit unrealistic. The Saints are very good, with a nice veteran cast and a lot of the team returning from last season, but depth was not a given before the season. Sometimes, all it takes is one signature win and an excellent conference showing, then losing in the conference championship game for an at-large bid. But projections of the Saints getting one might have been a bit much.
Not only was it going to be difficult to capture a couple of games on the road against high-majors, but the MAAC is rarely a conference whose regular season champ runs away from everyone else. Only twice in the past 11 seasons has at least three games separated first place from second place. The last time that happened was in 2003-04, when Manhattan finished three games ahead of Niagara, and six years earlier was the last time it happened before that. More common are cases where there are at least four teams within two games of first place, or even 2000-01, when six teams finished within a game of each other.
But while the Saints may not look like prohibitive favorites, the conference should still be theirs to lose. They are 2-0 as they enter the meat of the conference schedule starting on Thursday, and they’ve improved along the way. The development of younger players like sophomores Clarence Jackson and Ryan Rossiter and freshmen Owen Wignot and Kyle Downey has been an important part of it.
“I think we’ve developed fairly well,” head coach Fran McCaffery said. “I think our key guys are doing what we thought they would do. We needed Clarence and Ryan to do what they’re doing, and we needed Owen and Kyle to develop the way they did.”
McCaffery is thinking they would benefit by being able to go another player deep on a consistent basis. Junior Cory Magee figured to be in the rotation before the season, but he has been out all year from post-concussion syndrome after an elbow from Rossiter in an early practice. He has practiced on and off recently. More likely candidates are sophomore Steven Priestley and freshman Eric Harris.
The development of Jackson and Rossiter has been perhaps most important. Both were bit players last season, but Rossiter is now in the starting lineup and Jackson is playing key minutes off the bench. Jackson led them in scoring in the win at Saint Joseph’s with a career-high 28 points, and while it might have seemed to come out of nowhere, it didn’t surprise a teammate.
“From seeing him play in practice sometimes, we know that’s what he’s capable of doing,” said junior forward Edwin Ubiles.
As important as their development has been, Siena also got a breakout game from Kenny Hasbrouck on Tuesday night. Mired in a nearly season-long shooting slump, Hasbrouck had 19 points on 6-14 shooting, including 5-10 in the second half.
While it’s obvious that Hasbrouck coming back is a big development for the team – and both he and his teammates know that just one game doesn’t do it – there’s a positive to take out of things before that. The Saints were still 7-4 heading into the game and 5-1 since the losses in Orlando. They were still winning despite Hasbrouck’s offensive struggles, which helped him manage through the tough time.
“When we lost, it was hard,” said the senior guard. “When we were winning, it was like, okay, we’re doing great, so my shooting is not really affecting us yet. When we lost, it took a big toll on me because I would think if I made more of my shots, I think we would have won the game.”
It’s also no accident that the Saints continued to win during that time. Hasbrouck didn’t stop excelling in other facets of the game, and that made it easier for his teammates to step up.
“That’s what you do. When the shot’s not falling, you don’t want to get down, you try to make up for it other ways – on defense, rebounding,” said Ubiles. “There’s a lot of different ways you can be effective on the court. When you’re not scoring, you’ve got to do other things. I think that’s what the better players do. He was down, but he always plays hard, no matter what.”
“The thing about Kenny is he’s really got a lot of character,” said McCaffery. “In the period where he wasn’t making shots, he was helping us win games. He plays defense, he’s all over the place, he runs the point for us when we need him to, he passes it well.
As important as it is for the Saints to get Hasbrouck going again – junior forward Alex Franklin said, with a smile, “I miss Kenny going out there dropping 20 a game” – more important is what changed after the three losses in Orlando that allowed them to bounce back with the big month of December they had. In those three games, defense and rebounding were issues that led to the losses. But since then, the Saints have tried to focus on improving in both areas. They force nearly 18 turnovers per game, and while they are still being out-rebounded on the season, Pittsburgh is the only team to beat them on the glass in the past five games.
“We know why we lost in Orlando. It was bad mistakes on defense, we weren’t rebounding the ball well, we weren’t communicating as a team,” said Hasbrouck. “We’ve changed that, we’ve changed the image of the team. We’re starting to rebound against the better teams, and that’s why we’re winning right now.”
“In practice, coach tells us all the time, no matter what the game plan is, if we don’t rebound, we won’t win the game,” said Ubiles. “I think we all put that together as a team, to collectively go in and get rebounds, and I think we’ve all been doing a great job of that.”
With that winning, the Saints look more like the team some thought they would be before the season. They look more like the favorites in the MAAC, even if they aren’t prohibitive ones at that.