Saturday, January 10, 2009

Observations from an Impressive Siena Win

Your humble blogger was on hand for the Friday night (Jan. 9) game between previously league unbeatens Siena and Rider for the first rematch of the 2007-08 season's MAAC tournament title game (won by Siena), and not much has changed.

The result leaves no doubt tht, for now, Siena is still the better team.

Of course, things can change between now and the early March 2008-09 conference post-season tournament, and Rider has potential for growth with a nine-man playing group that has just one senior (Harris Mansell).

Then again, while Siena's starting five has more on-court experience, it too has just one senior. And the Saints' top four reserves against the Broncs were two sophomores and two freshmen.

Siena won the early season showdown, 91-81. Rider hung tough for most of the contest, holding a 47-46 lead early in the second half, but never led again after Siena got the next score and never got closer than four in the game's final 10 minutes.

Observations ...

- Siena took over right after Rider held its last lead. The Saints impressively scored on their next eight possessions to run off to a 64-51 advantage with 13:47 remaining and, despite Rider getting to within four three more in the game, never truly appeared threatened.

- Scouts representing four NBA teams (Celtics, Spurs, Nuggets and Thunder) were courtside, surely to get the latest look at Rider's superlative 6-foot-6 Ryan Thompson, who, since late December, has been playing as his team's point guard.

Although Thompson didn't have one of his best games, he was effective enough with 16 points (7-of-12 shooting, including 2-of-2 from bonus land), six assists, five rebounds and four steals in a full 40 minutes of court time. It's not a reach to envision this Thompson following his big brother, 6-11 Jason (now a Sacramento Kings' rookie), to the NBA.

But he wasn't necessarily the best player on the court this night. That honor just as easily could have gone to the Saints' 6-6 junior swingman Edwin Ubiles, who appeared particularly inspired either by the opportunity to go head-to-head (he drew the assignment of guarding Thompson) or the presence of NBA scouts.

Ubiles has the type athleticism and court ability that will also attract the eye of pro scouts, and on this night had a game-high 19 points (7-of-12 shooting), five rebounds, four assists, one block (of a Thompson shot), and two spectacular dunks.

One throw-down was on an alley-oop play with 6:05 left and Rider still within four points. The other was of the highlight-film variety when he got loose on a breakaway and finished with a 360-degree spin and emphatic dunk in the closing minute.

- Preseason Player of the Year choice senior Kenny Hasbrouck of Siena continued to climb out of early season woes with 18 points (6-of-14 shooting), with four three-pointers, all in the second half. And all four came on absolutely wide-open looks as Rider's defense just seemed to lose focus and lose track of the 6-3 Siena senior.

Hasbrouck, who recently went through a 7-game stretch in which he averaged just 6.4 points per game, has scored 18, 17 and 19 (19-of-42, 45.2 percent shooting) in Siena's last three outings.

- Siena, showing the difference in overall experience between the two teams, just made more big plays on both ends for most of the second half. The Saints scored on 21 of their final 32 possessions after Rider took its 47-46 lead. The Broncs only scored on 15 of their final 32 possession.

And, with Siena holding an 85-79 edge with 2:50 remaining, Rider's next four possessions resulted in three misses from three-point land (all acknowledged as ill-advised attempts by Rider coach Tommy Dempsey when the game was still close enough to require good shots, rather than long-distance tries), and two turnovers. After that stretch Siena had a 91-79 lead.

- "I thought we matched their talent level, but they (Siena) made more plays down the stretch," admitted Rider coach Dempsey. "Down the stretch, we took some quick shots (from trey land) when we needed better shots. On the other hand, the right players took the right shots on almost every position for Siena while we answered with a couple of empty possessions. Those are things that we'll learn from."

- Siena coach Fran McCaffery correctly pointed out that his team's two victories against other expected challengers thus far (Rider and Fairfield) have both come on the Saints' home court. "We still have to go to those places," said McCaffery.

- And, the Saints' coach also noted that the league is as balanced as he has seen it in his four seasons with Siena.

It's almost a standard refrain from league coaches to make that assessment every year, but it appears to be as true this season as this blogger can remember over 19 years of closely watching the MAAC.

Traditionally there are at least two programs experiencing difficult years almost every season. But Saint Peter's and Marist, the teams picked to finish ninth and 10th, are both far better than the usually MAAC bottom dwellers. And, as the saying goes, on any given night it wouldn't be a shock to see any of the other eight beat anyone.

Siena, followed by, in order for now, Niagara, Rider and Fairfield look to be the top four. But Manhattan has a strong returning cast from a year ago, Iona appears much improved as does Canisius. Loyola (which only lost by seven to Siena on Dec. 3) appears solid, too.

It is looking to be an enjoyably competitive season of MAAC play.

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