Sunday, February 8, 2009

Final Unbeaten Falls at Rider

Did anyone think the Siena men's team would finish this season with a perfect MAAC record?

This humble blogger didn't expect perfection, and perfection was denied for the Saints in a stunning 90-88 loss at Rider on Saturday (Feb. 7).

It's not that the result was stunning, but the manner in which it occurred.

Siena had a 13-point lead with under nine minutes remaining in the game and saw that evaporate faster than a mud puddle in the tropic region.

At one juncture late in the game, the Broncs scored on 16 consecutive possessions. When that incredible run was over Rider had turned its 13-point deficit into an 84-78 lead with 2:24 remaining.

Siena then tied the game twice in the closing minute, but couldn't get a stop after either tie. The last tie was at 88-88 with 37 seconds left.

Rider then put the ball in the hands of its Player of the Year candidate Ryan Thompson at the top of the key with about eight seconds remaining. The 6-foot-6 Thompson, a difficult one-on-one matchup for anyone, drive past Siena defender Edwin Ubiles, and got to the rim for a layup with three seconds remaining to secure the victory.

Without having witnessed the game in person, we'll offer some insight, hopefully with a little perspective ...

- This humble blogger never considered this Siena team to be one of the best ever to play in the MAAC, certainly not close to the caliber of the La Salle teams that finished 16-0 in conference play (the last team to be perfect in 1989-9000 and 14-0 in the league in 1987-88.

In fact, the feeling here is that the Paul Hewitt-coached teams of 1998-99 (which went to the NCAA's) and 1999-00 (which went to the NIT) were both slightly better than the current squad.

It's also a personal belief that the 1988-89 Siena team (which went to the NCAA's and beat Stanford in a first-round game) is better, and was the best Siena team ever, although Siena was not yet a MAAC member then (it joined the conference in the following season).

And, regular-season perfection is extremely difficult. It hasn't been done, now, for 19 seasons, and there have been some very, very good teams along the way.

If Siena finishes out with a 17-1 MAAC record, then, this blogger will recognize it among the MAAC's best of the past two decades. For now, though, we'll hold off on bestowing that accolade.

- The current Siena team has imperfections, one of which showed up again against Rider.

Primarily, this is a below-average free-throw shooting team. The Saints are hitting a poor 64.7 percent of their free throws, the second-lowest percentage, among the 10 MAAC teams. Only Canisius (58.8 percent), which only has two conference victories thus far, is worse.

The Saints shot 18-of-28 from the foul line against Rider (64.3 percent). In a two-point outcome, the value of a missed free throw, or two, becomes magnified.

For some perspective, here are the free-throw percentages of the three seasons that Paul Hewitt coached at Siena:
1997-98: 80.3 percent
1998-99: 78.7 percent
1999-00; 75.0 percent

This season Siena has just one player shooting over 70 percent from the charity stripe. That's 6-foot-9 center Ryan Rossiter (78.1 percent), who scored 14 points and was a perfect 4-for-4 from the line against Rider. his teammates made 14-of-24 FTs (58.3 percent)against the Broncs.

- The Saints also remain flawed in terms of height, although that's not of their own doing. Rossiter is the only true center currently active. Last year's primary two players at the position were Josh Duell and Corey Magee, both still in the program. But, Duell has missed much of the season with a variety of injuries (he's due back, probably in Siena's next game) and Magee is out for the season due to complications from a preseason concussion.

Siena has done well to be outrebounded, overall, only by an average of 36.4-to-35.9 per game.

- All five Siena starters played at least 31 minutes against Rider. The three Saint reserves who got into the game combined for 28 minutes.

Three of Rider's five starters played 29 minutes or fewer. Rider's three reserves combined for 53 minutes.

Was Siena tired, the trait that would most likely show up at the defensive end, when Rider made its 16-possession stretch of scoring plays late in the game?

There's no way of knowing that for sure, and we're just pointing out numbers in this instance.

- Siena's senior guard Kenny Hasbrouck scored 29 against Rider and has 83 points in his last three contests (27.7 per outing) to thrust himself back into Player of the Year consideration. He leads Siena in scoring, steals and 3-pointers made, and is second in assists.

- There is the theory that a late-season loss actually helps a team's motivation afterwards, although most coaches won't subscribe to that.

Still, a post-game comment from Hasbrouck says much ...

"I don't think our heart was there today," Hasbrouck is quoted as saying, immediately following the game. 'It starts at the top. I wasn't playing defense the way I should have. And, I think you just go down the line. None of us were rotating the way we should have. None of us had the urgency to stop somebody."

Maybe a loss will restore the necessary urgency.

- Does the loss knock Siena out of consideration for an NCAA tournament at-large berth, should it fail to capture the conference's post-season tournamnent?

It does diminish that chance, but this humble blogger still believes Siena can re-position itself for a potential at-large berth.

Of course, Siena would have to win out (five more league games, plus its BracketBusters meeting with Northern Iowa), and, likely, have to advance to the championship game of the conference tournament. If that scenario occurs, Siena would have a 26-7 record for the selection committee to consider.

In that respect, it makes the BracketBusters contest Feb. 21 against Northern Iowa probably the most-importaing regular-season contest Siena has remaining.

Northern Iowa is currently 18-6 with an 11-game winning steak and is rated high enough in the Ratings Percentage Index to give Siena a boost in its RPI should it win that meeting.

Actually, though, any loss prior to the MAAC championship game is probably enough to take Siena off the board of at-large teams should it not get the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA's.

- Siena's loss means the MAAC's regular-season title chase isn't entirely over. Siena is currently 12-1 in conference play, followed by 9-3 Niagara.

The Saints have legitimately tough road games remaining against Niagara and Iona (as well as home contests against Loyola, Manhattan and Canisius).

Is it that much out of the realm of possibility for Siena to lose twice more to MAAC opponents and Niagara to finish out with wins to create a tie for the regular-season crown?

Odder, less-likely things have happened in the MAAC over the years.

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