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November 19, 2009
Siena Saints hope to continue March run
The bandwagon started filling two years ago, after Siena upset Vanderbilt in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. When the Saints had a thrilling first-round victory over Ohio State in last season's tourney, more passengers came aboard.
Before long, Siena had gained so many supporters that the crowd was spilling onto the practice floor.
Thus, Saints coach Fran McCaffery had to close practices this fall for the first time in his five-year tenure because too many people were showing up.
"I opened practice when I first got there, and it was just a few people who came," McCaffery said. "It was just more and more people coming. It got to be too much."
Let's keep this in perspective: Siena wasn't working out in front of the types of crowds that might show up if Kentucky's John Calipari or North Carolina's Roy Williams opened up their practices. We're talking about dozens of fans, not hundreds or thousands. But it represented one more sign that Siena is embarking on the most anticipated season in school history.
Siena returns four starters from the team that knocked off Ohio State in the most exciting first-round game of last season's NCAA tournament. The Saints' lone new starter - 6-foot-3 junior guard Clarence Jackson - scored 24 points in a season-opening victory over Tennessee State.
"I think there's definitely more talent than last year and the year before," senior swingman Edwin Ubiles said.
There certainly is more firepower than when McCaffery arrived.
McCaffery interviewed for this position in 1997; the job instead went to Paul Hewitt, who led Siena to a 66-27 record in three seasons before taking over at Georgia Tech. McCaffery eventually was hired in 2005, with Siena coming off a 6-24 season under Rob Lanier, who now is an assistant at Florida.
McCaffery believed Siena's solid tradition and passionate fan base - the Saints ranked sixth among mid-major programs last season with an average attendance of 7,497 - could help him turn things around. He already had proved himself at Lehigh and UNC Greensboro, where he inherited losing programs and led them to NCAA tournament bids.
"I tried to sell [recruits] the tradition of the program, the fan base and the arena, the beautiful campus [outside of Albany, N.Y.]," McCaffery said. "It's an excellent academic institution. It's got a lot of things that would and should appeal to a young person. And I tried to sell my track record of working with young players and getting them to develop, the family type of atmosphere.
"Add it all together, and it's a pretty special place."
Before long, his team was creating some special moments in the NCAA tournament. The Saints have enough talent this season to maintain their status as the darlings of March - assuming they make it that far.
Even though Siena received the most votes of any team outside the top 25 in the latest Associated Press poll, an NCAA bid is no certainty.
Siena has won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament titles in each of the past two seasons, but the league should be tougher this season. Niagara returns four starters from a team that lost to Siena in last season's MAAC championship game. Rider opened the year with an upset of Mississippi State, which was ranked 18th at the time.
The Saints could have earned an at-large bid last season had they failed to win the MAAC tournament because of a tough non-conference schedule that included games with Pittsburgh, Kansas, Tennessee and Oklahoma State. Although Siena didn't win any of those games, its schedule strength gave the Saints an RPI in the top 20.
But all those returning starters made it much tougher for the Saints to find top-flight teams willing to play them this season. Siena's biggest non-conference games are Saturday against Temple in the Philly Hoop Group Classic, at Georgia Tech on Dec. 2 and at Missouri Valley Conference preseason favorite Northern Iowa on Dec. 12.
The lack of RPI-boosting games could make it more imperative for Siena to win the conference tournament this season. At the least, Siena needs to rack up as many victories as possible to have any hope of earning a bid if it gets upset in the league tournament.
"We got a lot of wins last year - 27," Ubiles said. "Our goal is to get more than that this year."
While Siena doesn't feature much height or depth, the Saints boast a starting five that just about any major-conference program would love to have. Siena starts three seniors and two juniors who have played together long enough to grasp the growing expectations surrounding this program.
"[There's] tons of pressure, but we have a veteran group that can handle it," senior power forward Alex Franklin said. "There are a lot of expectations and responsibilities, but we can handle it because we've been through a lot."
The benefit of Siena's experience was evident Tuesday, as the Saints calmly erased an early 14-point deficit to beat Northeastern 59-53 for their 22nd straight home win. A look at each starter reveals a lineup without any obvious holes.
Senior point guard Ronald Moore is rather generously listed as 6 feet tall, but he boasts a toughness and court savvy that came from playing pickup games with his cousin (Chicago Bulls guard John Salmons) and brother (former Vanderbilt guard Chuck Moore). He made huge 3-pointers in the final seconds of each overtime session against Ohio State last season.
Ubiles has scored more than 1,500 points in his Siena career and spent the summer joining other top college players at skills academies run by NBA stars Paul Pierce and LeBron James. Ubiles is a 6-7 swingman, and his height and athleticism make him a matchup nightmare for MAAC opponents.
Junior forward Ryan Rossiter led the MAAC in field-goal percentage (.524) and ranked second in blocks (1.9 per game) last season. He has averaged a double-double - 10.5 points and 10.5 rebounds - through the first two games of this season. Rossiter also has the proper family background for a long NCAA tournament run: His brother, Steve, played on the Davidson team that reached the Midwest Regional final two years ago.
Franklin's 6-5 frame makes him one of the nation's shortest power forwards, yet he pulled down 7.5 rebounds per game last season and has averaged 10 rebounds per game this season. "He's just a beast on the glass," McCaffery said. "He's as good a rebounder as there is in the country."
Jackson didn't start last year, but he averaged 8.3 points in just 14.7 minutes per game. He scored 22 points in a span of less than 9½ minutes against Tennessee State while also displaying a more well-rounded game. "The thing for Clarence that's impressive is he's doing so many more things other than jump-shooting the ball," McCaffery said. "He's doing great things off the dribble. He's playing much better defense. He's getting deflections. He's more physical defensively. He's rebounding. He's playing like somebody who has a chance to be a star."
McCaffery needs big performances from those starters because the Saints don't have much depth. Siena's reserves scored two points against Northeastern. While the starting lineup features five upperclassmen, the bench is full of freshmen and sophomores.
"That's what every coach would like to have - seniors and juniors in the starting lineup," McCaffery said. "But it's the players coming in behind them that typically determine whether you can have success over the course of an entire season.
"Somebody's going to get sick. Somebody's going to sprain their ankle. There's a lot of road games, a lot of travel, a lot of wear and tear. You need those young kids to play like veterans or at least come through for you when they have to."
Then again, Siena has succeeded in the past without an overwhelming amount of depth. The Saints went 27-8 last season while having only eight players average 10 minutes per game.
Siena's chances of matching its 2008-09 success could depend on how well the Saints can deal with their new status as one of the nation's mid-major powers. Siena earned a little more publicity than usual last season on the strength of its 2008 postseason success, but the level of attention has reached new heights this season.
McCaffery only needed to look around his practice floor for evidence.
When he first took over the job, only a few retirees and dedicated fans might sit in the corner of the gym to watch the Saints' workouts. This season, the fans grew more plentiful, with their faces less recognizable. Eventually he had to shut the doors.
"It's not like there were hundreds - just 25 or so," McCaffery said. "They were sort of looking at it like it was a spectator event. It's not. It's time to go to work."
If recent history offers any indication, McCaffery and Co. should plan to keep working well into March.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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