Friday, January 2, 2009

No surprise about who's No. 1

This blogger witnessed the New Year's Day meeting of Siena and Fairfield at Albany's Times-Union Center, the teams picked in the coaches' preseason poll to finish first and second, respectively, in this year's final standings.

Siena left little doubt about who's No. 1 right now with an 87-81 victory over the Stags. The contest was a meeting of two teams which, combined, had just two losses in the month of December. Both were 6-1 in that month, with Siena's only loss against then-No. 3 ranked Pittsburgh and Fairfield's against No. 2-rated UConn.

The up-tempo Saints inflicted their will on the game, scoring the second-highest number of points against usually defensive-minded Fairfield as any opponent to date. Only last season's national championship runner-up Memphis (a 90-63 winner over the Stags on Nov. 15) had scored more points against Fairfield than Siena.

Fairfield entered Thursday's contest allowing an average of 68.2 points per contest. Subtract its three games against higher caliber opponents (Memphis, Missouri and UConn), and the Stags, prior to meeting Siena, had allowed an average of a measley 63 points per contest against mid-major level foes.

Fairfield coach Ed Cooley, though, spent much of the game imploring his team to get back and stop the ball on Siena's constant quick transitions from defense to offense, but those demands mostly went unheeded.

No wonder, when he was asked about his team's defensive work against Siena, Cooley's best description was a four-letter expletive.

"I thought defensively we played like (bleep)," said Cooley, afterwards.

Does the outcome mean much? With final league standings traditionally decided by the slimmest of margins, every game is meaningful. But the teams meet again at Fairfield (Jan. 17, 3:30 p.m. at the Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport, Conn.). And, the Stags, with just about everyone back from last year, did split last season's regular-season series with the Saints (winning 53-52 at the T-U Center a year ago, although Siena's forward Alex Franklin missed that game).

Mostly this early season meeting helped confirm the coaches' preseason opinion that these two teams might well be the best in the MAAC ... although Niagara (with the MAAC's best non-league record, 10-3, thus far) and Rider (7-5 in non-conference play) are both likely to contest that assumption.

And, this blogger did pick Niagara to finish second in the MAAC this season in selections made for the preseason College Basketball Preview magazine published by "The Sporting News."

But in an attractive early season meeting (enough to draw an enthusiastic crowd of 6,469), Siena lived up to its preseason billing. The Saints got double-figure scoring from it's "Big Four," of forward Edwin Ubiles (22 points, 11 rebounds, four assists), point guard Ronald Moore (20 points, nine assists), guard Kenny Hasbrouck (17 points, four assists) and Franklin (15 points, eight rebounds). Senior center Josh Duell, a starter last season who comes off the bench for now, was an effective fifth presence with three points, five rebounds, two blocks and tough inside defense.

Fairfield countered with strong efforts from point guard Jonathan Han (22 points, 7 assists), and forwards Greg Nero (21 points, 12 rebounds) and Anthony Johnson (12 points, eight rebounds, three blocks).

The Stags played a strong first 18 minutes, holding a 40-38 edge before Siena scored the final seven points of the first half. Fairfield nosed in front 62-59 with 12 minutes left, but after Siena scored the next nine points the Stags never led again.

The difference was that Siena rendered the usually tough Fairfield defense ineffective for much of the game.

The Saints scored 49 points in the game's 21:48 to take control, leaving no surprise that Stags' coach Cooley needed an expletive to describe his team's defensive effort on this day.

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