Monday, March 23, 2009

Slotting this Siena Squad in its Place ... and Plotting a Route to Sweet 16 in 2010

Earlier this season my good friend, Pete Iorizzo of the Albany Times Union newspaper, subjectively identified the five best teams in the history of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

The list was pretty accurate in my mind, particularly since I provided some help in determining Pete’s picks.

Because the just-concluded season was still on-going, though, the 2008-09 Siena team was not considered.

With Siena’s results in, though, it’s a good time to revisit the debate.

It says here that the 2008-09 Siena team ranks behind only the 1989-90 La Salle team that featured Lionel Simmons, Randy Woods and Doug Overton (16-0 in MAAC play, 30-2 overall).

This year’s Siena team finished 27-8 overall, and its 16 regular-season conference victories matched the league’s all-time best also held by the 1989-90 Exporers and the 2003-04 Manhattan (16-2) squad.

Siena’s current “era” also rivals La Salle’s glory years (1987-88 through 1989-90), a three-year run when the Explorers finished 43-1 in MAAC play and 80-18 overall.

But, in one respect, the current Siena era surpasses even those La Salle teams.

Siena became the first MAAC men’s team since the league was formed in 1981 to win a first-round NCAA Tournament game in consecutive seasons.

In sports, where we often look ahead as much as look behind, the talk about whether Siena can advance beyond the second round of the NCAA’s is already a topic of debate.

Although no MAAC men's team has ever won a second-round game, why not Siena a year from now?

Only one productive senior, senior guard Kenny Hasbrouck, leaves this year’s team.

Hasbrouck was the conference’s Player of the Year this season. But, he wasn’t the season’s unique talent like Simmons was for La Salle, or Luis Flores was as a senior at Manhattan when that program won 16 conference regular-season games in the 2003-04 season.

Hasbrouck will be sorely missed, but not to the point that Siena’s program will return to the pack without him like La Salle and Manhattan did when their respective singular stars moved on.

There is a solid replacement in current sophomore Clarence Jackson, the conference’s Sixth Man of the Year Award winner for this season, ready to step in.

Siena’s other four starters? All four will be among the conference’s top players a year from now.

Back, too, will be all-Rookie team member guard Kyle Downey and another productive first-year player, forward Owen Wignot. Siena’s incoming recruits are reportedly strong and all three could play roles on next season’s team.

Right now, Siena is likely to be a unanimous choice as the conference’s team to beat in next season’s preseason poll of coaches.

And, then, the conference’s post-season tournament will again be played at the Times Union Center, Siena’s home court.

If all that holds up, and Siena gets to its third straight NCAA tournament next season, its chances to advance to that event’s Sweet 16 round, where no MAAC team has ever gone, depends on one thing: A good seeding position.

The Saints were flattered to be a No. 9 seed in a 16-team bracket this season. It gave them a first-round match against an opponent of equal ability in the minds of the NCAA Selection Committee.

But the seeding gave Siena a second-round match with the bracket’s No. 1 seed, Louisville.

Siena’s quest to advance past the second round of a future NCAA tournament would likely require a No. 6 seed, bringing about a second-round meeting with a No. 3, or a No. 5 seed bringing a second-round game against a No. 4.

Lofty expectations? For sure.

But, not unprecedented. The 1989-90 La Salle team was a No. 4 seed in a 16-team bracket. So, it can happen.

If the Siena “era” is indeed among the best ever experienced by a MAAC program, then it could secure a No. 4, 5 or 6 seed a year from now by living up to that particular accolade.

Needless to say that it won’t be easy.

Siena would need to get a win or two on the road against big-time opponents, something it didn’t get this year in losing to Pittsburgh, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Wichita State and Tennessee in games away from home this season.

It probably needs to improve on its 16-2 MAAC record from this season, too.

Siena went 7-5 in non-league games this season and 16-2 in MAAC play.

Give the Saints one more non-league win, and one more in the conference … that’s 25-5 entering the MAAC tournament. Win three games there, and it’s a 28-5 record going into Selection Sunday, probably good enough for a No. 5 or a No. 6 seed, as long as the non-league schedule includes games against Top 50 opponents, and Siena wins one of those.

Add another victory somewhere along the way and, then, it's a 29-4 record and, potentially a No. 4 seed.

Sounds easy, but it’s not. As good as the MAAC was this season, it might be even better a year from now.

But, that’s probably what Siena has to reach for if it hopes to advance beyond the NCAA Tournament’s second round.

Here’s a good comparison of another so-called mid-major program’s recent plight in the NCAA’s.
Xavier, a No. 4 this season, has advanced to the Sweet 16. Last year, as a No. 3 seed, it advanced to the round of eight. Two years ago, as a No. 9 seed in 2007, Xavier won a first-round contest and, then, was ousted by a No. 1, the same situation Siena faced this season.

Easier said than done. But, it's what Siena will likely have to do to advance beyond the second round of NCAA Tournament play.

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