Saturday, January 24, 2009

Time to Start Talking About Perfection

The Siena men's team hit the halfway mark of the MAAC season in impressive style, finishing off a perfect half-season (9-0 to date against conference foes) with a clear-cut 82-65 victory Saturday afternoon at the Times Union Center in Albany, N.Y., over Niaagara, which entered the game with the league's second-best record.

The margin of victory marked the fifth time that the Saints have beaten a MAAC foe by double digits.

The 9-0 beginning also accounts for the fastest start to a MAAC season since the 1989-90 La Salle team not only opened that fast, but finished just as fast with a 16-0 regular season.

The MAAC expanded to a 10-team league for the 1997-98 season, accounting for 18 league games annually and no team has ever rung up a perfect 18-0 record.

The halfway point to that seems like as good an opportunity as any to start wondering if Siena can be the conference's first 18-0 men's team and just the second overall (the Marist women finished 18-0 last season).

Coincidentally, the last men's team to run the table in league play not only had one of its architects in the building on Saturday but on the opposing bench.

Niagara head coach Joe Mihalich was an assistant coach on the 1989-90 La Salle team that finished 16-0.

"They're halfway there, and if anyone can do it they can," said Mihalich, afterwards. "Clearly 9-0 hasn't happened for a long time ... I was there for that (the last time it happened).

"They (Siena) just don't have a weak link. That's why when you play them you don't have any room for error. They get whatever they need. When the have to get an open shot, they get it, when they need a dribble drive they make it."

Siena's dominance Saturday was all the more impressive since senior preseason Player of the Year choice Kenny Hasbrouck played just eight first-half minutes due to foul trouble, and junior point guard Ronald Moore had, probably, his worst game of the year (1-for-7 shooting for two points, and five turnovers in 32 minutes).

Hasbrouck responded with a strong second half (he finished with 13 points), Siena shot 60 percent from the field overall, and the Saints got arguably a career-best game from rapidly developing 6-foot-9 sophomore center Ryan Rossiter (18 points on 7-of-7 shooting, 12 rebounds and five blocks in 36 minutes).

Weaknesses? It appeared the inside game would be one for the Saints this season, after injuries have all but kept the two returnees who played the most minutes at the center spot a year ago out for almost all of this season.

Senior Josh Duell, last season's starter in the post, was injured in the preseason, ineffective early in his return (he played 14 games) and, then, just as he started to be a contributor suffered strained knee ligaments and isn't due back again until mid-February. Corey Magee, Duell's back-up last season, has yet to play after suffering a concussion in the preseason.

The center spot has fallen to Rossiter, who as a too-slender freshman was easy to move off the blocks. The addition of 15 pounds since last season, and a year's experience has turned him into an asset as a sophomore.

Rossiter is averaging 28 minutes of playing time per contest, shooting a league best 61.3 percent from the field and averaging 9.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game.

It has turned the one potential Siena weak spot into another strong point, and has let the talk about a perfect season begin.

Not that the Saints won't be tested in the second half. A big test comes Monday when Iona comes to Albany. And, Siena still has to go on the road for five games in its final eight in conference play, with the primary stumbling blocks on Feb. 16 at Iona and Feb. 27 at Iona.

Then, too, Siena's need to rally from a 13-point deficit late in its Jan. 15th game at Marist before earning an overtime victory proved that on any given night ...

But, for now, Siena has the fastest start to conference play in 19 years, with a three-game lead over its closest pursuer in the league standings.

It's enough distance to start thinking Siena is in full control for the league's regular-season championship. So, let the debate begin about whether an 18-0 record is possible.

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