Saturday, January 16, 2010

Siena Continues to Control Conference

Is the conference regular-season race over?

After seven league games, can we already concede the regular-season championship to Siena?

It seems that way.

In Siena's latest challenge, its meeting with second-place Fairfield at the Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport, Conn., the host Stags had a 46-45 lead after the first possession of the second half ...

... and, Siena then scored the next 12 points, the last coming on Saint guard Clarance Jackson's sixth three-pointer of the game, for a 58-46 advantage.

Fairfield got its deficit down to six just once more in the game, getting to within 66-60 with a little over eight minutes remaining. And, then, Siena scored six of the next seven points to grab an 11-point lead and pretty much end any remaining mystery.

The game was televised via local cable outlets both in New York's Capital Region and throughout the Fairfield area. Hope you enjoyed it because seven games in the season it might have been the final "Big Game" in terms of a championship race for the 2009-10 season.

Of course coaches will say there's a lot of time left. And, in fact, Siena's Fran McCaffery said exactly that prior to Saturday's game with the Stags.

But, consider this: Only Fairfield (5-2 in MAAC play) has fewer than three league losses, and when the Stags meet the Saints again later this season it will be on Siena's Times Union Center home court in Albany, N.Y., where the Saints have won 30 straight games.

Consider, this too: The teams picked in the coaches' preseason poll to finish second and third, Niagara and Rider, both have 3-4 conference records (Niagara dropped a 65-47 decision at Iona on Saturday). If the season ended right now one of those two teams would be in the MAAC Tournament's play-in round.

So, how do you stop Siena? Fairfield tried by getting the ball out of the hands of senior point guard Ronald Moore, who entered the game as the nation's assist leader but was held to just two assists Saturday.

Siena, though, had too many other weapoins, including Jackson (22 points), Ryan Rossiter (17 points, 10 rebounds), Alex Franklin (16 points) and Edwin Ubiles (15 points).

What Siena also does well is to attack the basket, a strategy employed by McCaffery since his arrival at the school. That philosophy almost always results in more free throws for his team than for the opposition. Against Fairfield, Siena was 18-of-27 from the foul line while Fairfield was 8-of-15.

Siena clearly doesn't just win at home. The Saints have won 31 of their last 33 games against conference competition (including tournament play). And, the current seniors have won all four games with Fairfield played at the Arena at Harbor Yards over the past four seasons.

On Saturday, Fairfield looked, at least from my seat in front of the 42-inch screen, to be one strong player and a year's experience short against the Saints.

This was your blogger's first look at the Stags' freshman point guard Derek Needham, and he is every bit as good as advertised. The conference doesn't often get true freshmen with his ability.

On Saturday he had 16 points, 7 rebounds and 4 steals. Those are all-league caliber numbers, and the type he has been turning in all season.

But, he's still a freshman, as evidenced by his game-high eight turnovers.

It all seems to indicate something that hardly qualifies as shocking news, that Siena is indeed the conference's dominant team.

Is the championship race over? Maybe not. Siena still has some tough road games, particularly ones at Saint Peter's (Jan. 29), at Niagara (Feb. 12) and at Rider (Feb. 26).

But, unless something unusual happens, the regular-season race might be statistically over by mid-February.

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