Monday, November 30, 2009

Siena Needs More Help From Reserves

There is considerable gloom and doom among the Siena faithful after their Saints got off to a 3-2 start (now 4-2) with losses to Temple and St. John's.

Your humble blogger will refer readers to one post made last year at this time, when Siena lost all three of its games in the 2008 Old Spice Classic; and, to two other posts written several weeks ago before Siena played its first game.

The summation of last year's post after the Old Spice losses: Don't panic. Siena played superior talent, and has room to improve.

The summation of this year's preseason posts, made after one publication named Siena as the 15th-best team nationally and another as the 20th-best: Let's get realistic, those projections are way too high.

Yours truly isn't always right, but when he hits the proverbial nail he's willing to take credit.

After last season's Old Spice Classic dropped Siena to a 2-3 record it won 25 of its final 30 games including a second straight win in the NCAA tournament's first round. Despite some early season panic by program followers, things turned out pretty well in 2008-09.

There's a little bit of that panic around again, particularly since the Saints probably won't crack the national Top 25 polls without a considerable run of victories that would have to start with Wednesday's game at Georgia Tech (which is in the Top 25).

But does any of that matter right now? Of course not.

Unless Siena came pretty close to running the table this year, it probably wasn't going to earn an at-large berth to the NCAA if it didn't capture the MAAC's automatic bid. The MAAC has only received one at-large NCAA invitation in its previous 28 years of existence.

The greatest negative affect that the early season losses have had on Siena is to diminish its Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) standing. That will impact where the Saints get slotted in the NCAA field, should it get there.

A year ago Siena was a No. 9 seed in a 16-team bracket. The position created a competitive first-round game in which Siena knocked off eighth-seeded Ohio State and, then, a game with a No. 1 seed and overwhelming favorite Louisville in the second round.

For Siena, or any MAAC team, to get beyond the tournament's second round, something never accomplished by a conference team, the likelihood is that it would need to be seeded No. 5 or No. 6 in a bracket. That opportunity has likely already been lost for Siena this season.

Still, Siena's best days this season are ahead. Despite the return of four starters and the league's top reserve from a year ago moving into the fifth starting spot the Saints remain a work in progress.

The return of five of the team's top six players, though, created more hype and expectations than the program has ever experienced.

It says here that all of that wasn't merited.

The loss of both the on-court production and off-court leadership of the 2008-09 conference Player of the Year Kenny Hasbrouck is being felt now. Clarence Jackson, the top reserve in the league a year ago, has moved into the starting lineup but the program has yet to duplicate the bench strength he helped provide last season.

And, therein lies Siena's biggest problem to date.

In its two losses, Siena noticeably wore down in the second half. It had a nine-point lead early in the second half of its 77-68 loss to St. John's, and a seven-point halftime lead in its eventual 73-69 setback against Temple.

Siena's top five reserves got an average of 30 minutes of court time in those two games and average 65 minutes of playing time in its four victories.

That statistic alone indicates that Siena is plenty good enough to beat the mid-major level teams on its schedule by wide enough margins to get its reserves extra minutes but that coach Fran McCaffery isn't yet comfortable enough with his bench players to use them extensively in close games.

But, it's early. Teams develop as seasons progress. Siena's improvement, and how it fares at tournament time, will likely be directly related to how its bench players develop.

There is potential help on the way for Siena. Guard Kyle Griffin, a transfer from La Salle, is eligible to play beginning Dec. 23. By all accounts, he has been effective in practices and is expected to fit into the playing group. Davis Martens, a 6-9 forward from Germany, is eligible to begin playing as of Dec. 31. Reports are that Martens is still becoming acclimated to what the Saints do on the court, but has the physical skills to eventually be a factor.

It's clear, though, that Siena will need contributions from one of those two, if not both, as well as further development of its bench players.

Currently, Siena's top reserve guard is sophomore Kyle Downey, who was inactive for the entire summer with a back injury. Its top reserve forward is another sophomore, Owen Wignot, who has been mostly inconsistent thus far. Its other three most-played reserves are freshmen.

It's also clear why Siena needs production from its bench. To play its uptempo style Siena needs fresh players on the court.

Right now, though, Siena isn't as good at doing that as it was last year, nor as good as its uptempo teams from a little more than a decade ago when current Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt coached the Saints.

Need proof? Hewitt's 1998-99 team that advanced to the NCAA tournament had five productive reserves who combined to average 32 points, 14.3 rebounds and 87.5 minutes of action per game.

His 1999-00 team that played in that season's NIT had six productive reserves who averaged 31.3 points, 14.1 rebounds and 85.5 minutes per outing.

Through six games, the current Siena team's top five reserves average 15.4 points, 8.0 rebounds and 53.4 minutes per contest.

To further emphasize those numbers, Hewitt's 1998-99 team didn't have a single player average more than 27 minutes of playing time per night. The current Siena team has two players averaging more than 32 minutes per night and another at 28.8 minutes.

If Siena's bench players don't eventually develop to the point where they can provide the production that Hewitt's teams got from its reserve players ... well, that's when it will be time to start wondering if the Saints might not be able to duplicate their achievements of the past two seasons.


Siena 73 said...

Steve,didn't Manhatten earn an at large bid about 10 years ago and then face Oklahoma in the NCAAs

Steve Amedio said...

Dear Siena '73 ...
Yes, Manhattan was the lone MAAC team to earn an at-large berth, which is referred to in this post.