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Thursday, August 14, 2008
ShootAround: Siena poised to make it two tourney trips in a row

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Siena peaked at the right time of the year, advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Sainthood

Life is tenuous in a highly competitive, one-bid league like the MAAC. Take Siena, for example. None of what's helped make Siena a heavy favorite to win the league this season -- such as its resounding victory over Rider in the MAAC title game and the subsequent thrashing of 4-seed Vanderbilt in the first round of the NCAA tournament -- would have happened had the Saints not found a way back from 17 points down in the league semis to edge Loyola (Md.), a team that had swept them in the regular season.

We were not a championship team in December or January, or the beginning of February, for that matter.

--Fran McCaffery

So even though Siena returns practically every key player from last season's champs, don't begrudge Siena head coach Fran McCaffery if he still recalls his club's flaws.

"We were not a championship team in December or January, or the beginning of February, for that matter," McCaffery said. "We were not protecting leads. We were not defending like a championship team. We were a very good offensive team and kind of relied on that to have more wins than losses. We were 16-10 heading into BracketBusters and wondering where we were going."

Coming off a dispiriting one-point road loss at MAAC minnow Manhattan, the Saints went west for BracketBusters and routed eventual WAC champ Boise State by 23. Forward Alex Franklin's 30 points and 18 rebounds sparked a seven-game winning streak that culminated in the league's auto bid and the slamming of the Dores in the tourney.

The seeds of that run, though, may actually have been planted during a 44-point loss to eventual national finalist Memphis in early January. It was that night in the FedEx Forum when McCaffery said his Saints saw what it was like to play 40 minutes of high-level hoops with a purpose. Even when the game was well in hand, there was no letup from the Tigers.

"We did [sloppy] kind of stuff all year long … blowing leads and being inconsistent," McCaffery said. "I think Memphis sort of gave us a blueprint on how to value every possession. Once we started playing like that, I thought we were a really good team."

They should be again this season with star wings Edwin Ubiles and Kenny Hasbrouck back to complement Franklin and standout point guard Ronald Moore. Yes, they lose diminutive reserve guard Tay Fisher, who poured in 40 points in just 40 minutes in the wins over Rider and Vandy, but his departure opens up more opportunities for players like sophomore Clarence Jackson. Many of last year's other challengers in the league lost key players, so the scene is set for the Saints' success. But don't expect this season's challengers to concede anything just yet.

"Siena's going to be the unanimous [preseason] pick, but I also think they gained so much momentum in the last couple of weeks [of the season]," said Rider head coach Tommy Dempsey, whose team shared the regular-season crown with the Saints and returns four starters itself. "All of a sudden they whack Vandy, and now suddenly nobody can beat them. … I don't think they've separated themselves like everyone else does."

His belief in his own team and the depth of the league aside, Dempsey was quick to acknowledge the quality of what the Saints have coming back.

"Are they the best team on paper? No question," he added.

McCaffery's task now is to make sure what's on paper translates to what shows on the court, night in and night out. The Saints have seen what their potential is when they stay focused, when they defend and when they commit to a full 40-minute effort. Last year's relative youth is this season's experienced core, which McCaffery hopes will mean the end of Siena's inconsistent ways.

"[More than anything,] that's what I expect from these returning players, to understand how far we came and let's keep that going," he said.

Five Things To Watch in '08-09

Is Siena a runaway favorite?
Favorite, yes. Runaway, no. As mentioned above, Siena was very inconsistent at times last season, even within games, and the loss of Tay Fisher, a major weapon in Siena's stretch run, also shouldn't be overlooked. Despite a number of league foes losing high-impact players, there still will be very few nights off in the MAAC this season, especially on the road. Two or three other teams look reasonably positioned to make a run at the Saints for the league title, and several others are fully capable of taking them out should the same type of lapses surface again this season. As impressive as Siena's talent is, the Saints remain a guard-heavy team that could be scored on and was exposed on the glass last season. Unless those areas get shored up, thoughts of a runaway title seem premature.

If not Siena, then who?
The best bet is probably Rider, even with the loss of NBA lottery pick forward Jason Thompson. The Broncs return more or less everyone else from a squad that tied Siena for the regular-season crown before injuries left them shorthanded and at Siena's mercy in the MAAC title game. They also have a front-runner for league player of the year in junior Ryan Thompson, Jason's do-it-all brother, who averaged 15.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg and 3.4 apg last season. Niagara, even with the loss of 27.6 ppg scorer Charron Fisher, should also be very solid. The Purple Eagles' offensive attack should be much more balanced than in recent years, and they now have Big East guard transfers Bilal Benn (Villanova) and Rob Garrison (UConn) in the fold. Fairfield, a mid-table team that returns all five starters, could prove to be a dark horse.

Jason and Ryan Thompson

Peter G. Borg

Jason Thompson (left) is off to the NBA, but Rider still has younger brother Ryan to carry the load.

Transition year?
While the league still should be pretty competitive, it would be naive to think it will be easy to overcome the talent lost to graduation from the top half of the league last year. Rider's Jason Thompson posted a second straight 20-10 season. Niagara's Fisher was second in the nation in scoring. Loyola (Md.), a team that gave Siena fits last season with its size and physical play, loses leading scorer Gerald Brown and bangers Michael Tuck and Omari Isreal inside. Marist (see below) loses just about everyone. All this transition might open the door for teams like Fairfield, Manhattan and Iona to move up the standings.

Starting over at Marist
Almost the entire core is gone from a team that was a couple of buckets away from the MAAC title game, as is head coach Matt Brady, who jumped to take the James Madison job. That leaves new head man Chuck Martin, most recently an assistant at Memphis, staring at a rebuilding project. There likely won't be any Derrick Roses or Joey Dorseys in his immediate future, but Martin expects to be able to leverage his New York City ties to tap into the talent available in the Big Apple. Martin grew up in the Bronx, playing at St. Raymond's High School, and was an assistant coach at Manhattan and St. John's. And it's not like he's starting without a base to work with. The Red Foxes have won 62 games over the past three seasons and have one of the league's most passionate fan bases.

Euro trip
Siena is readying for a preseason trip to Italy, which recent college basketball history suggests should be a productive exercise for a team returning as much talent as the Saints do. Come this March, though, they'll be right at home while the rest of the league wishes they were anywhere else. Once again, the MAAC tournament will be on Siena's home floor, the Times Union Center in Albany. It was originally scheduled to be at Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton, hosted by Rider, but according to a league press release, the arena's management changed its mind about hosting the event. It will be at the TUC in 2010, as well, before moving to the Arena at Harbor Yards in Bridgeport, Conn., (with Fairfield hosting) in 2011.

If I were MAAC commish …

The MAAC has it right by playing a full round-robin schedule of 18 games. But the MAAC must try to limit the number of guaranteed games MAAC teams play on the road. They need to cap it at two and force the MAAC teams to play more home-and-home games against like teams from similar conferences.

Finding a permanent home for the conference tournament is also a must. The MAAC has done well in Albany but the league is at least considering moving the tourney to the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. A destination might help the league.

2008-09 Team Capsules

MAAC
CanisiusCanisius
The Golden Griffins (also headed to Italy in August) were equally poor on both ends of the court last season. One area that could improve a host of other problems is turnover margin, where Canisius was last in the league, while also committing a league-high 16.3 turnovers per game. The good news is that the team should be much more experienced this season. Nine of the top 10 scorers return after a year in which the top five players in percentage of minutes played were freshmen and sophomores.

FairfieldFairfield
The Stags return a ton from last season's 11-7 MAAC campaign, but hopefully they brought back a better idea on how to stop people if they want to live up to contender status. The Stags shot the 3 very well but gave it up at an even higher rate (38.2 percent, last in the league). Mix in some turnover problems and an inability to keep teams off the offensive glass and it's clear there's some room for improvement if they want to pick up the wins needed to challenge in the league. Leading scorer and assist man Jonathan Han (11.7 ppg, 6.2 apg) makes the balanced attack work. No one else averaged in double figures last season, but six others were between 6.3 and 9.6 points a game.

IonaIona
Kevin Willard's Gaels certainly don't play like his father's Holy Cross Crusaders. They play fast, turn the ball over a lot and, unlike a lot of their MAAC peers, have most of their issues on the offensive end, where they finished second to last in the league with 65.6 ppg. This year, Iona has a good amount of talent back, but they will have to make do without leading scorer Dexter Gray, who takes his 11.3 ppg and 5.2 rpg to Chile, where he's starting a professional career. The good news is that Gary Springer is back after averaging 10.9 ppg and 7.7 rpg in just under 22 minutes a game. The defense, especially around the 3-point arc, needs to improve as well, but if the maturing Gaels can make a few more jumpers instead of kicking the ball away, they could be poised to take a next step.

Loyola (Md.)Loyola (Md.)
MAAC coaches would be wise to take a long look at how the Greyhounds handled Siena last season. Loyola swept the home-and-home in the regular season (winning by 29 at home) before losing in the final seconds of the MAAC tournament semis on Siena's home floor. Rather than trying to out-quick the Saints, the Greyhounds bludgeoned them inside with a powerful frontcourt approach. Without a number of key members from last season's squad, it's probably too much to expect Marquis Sullivan, Brett Harvey and Co. to do the deed themselves this year, but if someone does displace Siena as the league heavyweight, Loyola likely will deserve some of the credit for providing the blueprint.

ManhattanManhattan
What's the advantage of having a really young team last season? You get to return them for a more experienced run this season. Manhattan had 10 players average at least 12 minutes a game last season, and solid starters like Antoine Pearson, Devon Austin and Darryl Crawford are nice foundation blocks around which the rest of the Jaspers' balanced attack can revolve. In order to make the leap up the standings, though, Manhattan will have to be better defensively than it was a year ago. Youth can breed inexperience on that end, but it's not the sole excuse for allowing teams to shoot 38.2 percent from 3-point range and 47.5 percent from the field, both last in the league.

MaristMarist
Given the new coach and almost all new personnel on the roster, looking at last year's stats doesn't hold much value. What will be interesting, though, is to see how much of a philosophical change Chuck Martin will bring to the program, especially on the defensive end. Last season, Marist defended very well despite forcing very few turnovers. Memphis, where Martin was an assistant for the past two seasons, really liked to get after it on the defensive end and force miscues, which was a decent part of their stellar overall defensive numbers. Not that you ever concede a season (or two), but given how solid Siena (and others) look to be for the next two years, it might give Martin a nice window in which to build a team that can truly challenge in 2010-11.

NiagaraNiagara
How do you make up for the loss of a 27.6 ppg scorer like Charron Fisher (as well as the 13.3 ppg from Stanley Hodge)? Niagara head coach Joe Mihalich hopes that returning guard Tyrone Lewis and transfers Bilal Benn and Rob Garrison can lead a balanced attack where four or five Purple Eagles will be in double figures. Given that Fisher didn't even shoot 40 percent from the field last season, it's possible higher efficiency can help offset the loss of his explosiveness. A bigger concern for Niagara might be replacing Fisher's contributions on the glass. The 6-foot-4 dynamo was far and away the team leader at 9.5 rpg. And while the Purple Eagles led the league in offensive rebounding, they were last in the MAAC in defensive rebounding.

RiderRider
This was far from a one-man show last season, as MAAC fans may find out this year. In addition to Ryan Thompson, a strong candidate for league player of the year, the Broncs also return effective scoring wing Harris Mansell (13.7 ppg) and sophomore guards Mike Ringgold and Justin Robinson. Also notable for a mid-major team with an NBA lottery pick in its frontcourt (or maybe because of it), Rider was the best 3-point shooting team in the league last season, making 39.8 percent from the arc. If Rider's youthful backcourt rotation can reduce the turnover numbers from last season, this still should be a potent offensive club. They weren't a great defensive team even with Jason Thompson inside, so it will be interesting to see how the Broncs' defensive concepts fare this year with less of an inside presence.

St. Peter'sSt. Peter's
You know it was a long season when the Peacocks' biggest moments came in November, when they beat solid NEC team Wagner and Big East in-state foe Rutgers in back-to-back games. SPC only won three MAAC games last season, all of which were over fellow lower-division clubs Canisius (twice) and Manhattan. The Peacocks were very young, with five freshmen averaging double-figure minutes, and will need to make do this season without double-double man Todd Sowell, who departs with his 12.7 ppg and 10.4 rpg. Coming back to lead the attack, though, is sophomore Wesley Jenkins, who averaged 13.0 ppg last season while shooting 41.7 percent from 3.

SienaSiena
When Siena was beaten last year, it was often because of defensive foibles, and this season's upside rests heavily on how much the Saints improve on that end. The Saints were exposed from the arc (37 percent allowed) in addition to the defensive glass. They're able to make up for some of it with a very positive turnover differential. Siena finished 33rd in D-I in forcing them (24.0 percent of opponents' possessions) and, thanks in large part to lead guard Ronald Moore, only turned it over 15.7 percent of the time itself (5th in D-I). Must-watch holiday hoops alert: The Siena-Tennessee quarterfinal in the Old Spice Classic should be juicy Thanksgiving Week viewing.

2007-08 MAAC Standings

Overall record MAAC record
Siena* 23-11 13-5
Rider 23-11 13-5
Niagara 19-10 12-6
Loyola (Md.) 19-14 12-6
Marist 18-14 11-7
Fairfield 14-16 11-7
Iona 12-20 8-10
Manhattan 12-19 5-13
St. Peter's 6-24 3-15
Canisius 6-25 2-16
*NCAA tournament

For all the MAAC news and notes, check out the league page.

Top Returning Scorers

Player PPG
Edwin Ubiles, Siena, Jr. 17.0
Tyrone Lewis, Niagara, Jr. 16.1
Kenny Hasbrouck, Siena, Sr. 16.1
Alex Franklin, Siena, Jr. 15.1
Ryan Thompson, Rider, Jr. 15.0

Top Returning Rebounders

Player RPG
Alex Franklin, Siena, Jr. 7.8
Gary Springer, Iona, Sr. 7.7
Anthony Johnson, Fairfield, Jr. 7.3
Benson Egemonye, Niagara, Sr. 6.9
Ryan Thompson, Rider, Jr. 6.2

Final Shot

Which MAAC program ranks highest since the 1984-85 season? Prestige Rankings

Will Siena make another trip to the NCAA tournament to try and emulate its 2008 success?. Bracketology

Missed the other conference breakdowns? Click here to check out the ShootArounds archive.