Here's another in the series previewing MAAC teams. Up now ...
2009-10 RECORD: 17-1 in MAAC play, 27-7 overall.
COACHES' PREDICTION: Picked for second in the preseason poll of conference coaches.
KEY RETURNEES: 6-9 senior center Ryan Rossiter (13.8 points, 11.1 rebounds), 6-3 senior guard Clarence Jackson (13.6 points, 2.5 rebounds), 6-2 junior guard Kyle Downey (5.0 points), 6-8 sophomore forward O.D. Anosike (2.7 pints, 3.4 rebounds).
KEY LOSSES: Forward Alex Franklin (16.1 points, 8.7 rebounds), forward Edwin Ubiles (15.3 points, 3.7 rebounds), guard Ronald Moore (7.0 points, 3.4 rebounds, 7.7 assists).
NOTES: A school record for victories in a season and a single game (a late-season loss at Niagara) away from the first perfect conference season by a MAAC team since the 1996-97 expansion to an 18-game league schedule. Not that there weren't some blemishes. The Saints played six "up" games during the course of the season and lost all six (Temple, St. John's, Georgia Tech, Northern Iowa, Butler and, in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Purdue).
Gone from last year's team is the program's No. 3 (Ubiles) and No. 5 (Franklin) all-time leading career scorers and Moore who, with his nation-leading 7.7 assist-per-game average, might be the most difficult piece to replace. And, yet, league coaches pick Siena to finish second in the MAAC standings this season. Most teams at this level go through a down cycle after losing so many key individuals, but it's clear that most expect the Saints just to reload rather than rebuild.
Still, much of this season is about rebuilding, although not in the traditional sense. Departed coach Fran McCaffery, who left for Iowa, left behind two of the league's best players in Rossiter (picked as the conference's preseason Player of the Year) and Jackson as well as a strong group of former role players and two talented freshmen. This season will be mostly about players stepping up to new and different roles. The rebuilding is an attempt to rebuild enough to win, or at least contend for, a fourth straight MAAC title, something no men's team has ever done.
There is certainly enough returning to ensure Siena doesn't make the usual free-form dropoff after losing so much talent, and it has already been on display in an 0-2 start (to Vermont, an outcome that stopped a 38-game home winning streak by the Saints, and on the road against Minnesota). Rossiter had 27 points and 11 rebounds against Vermont, and Jackson, who had 29 at Minnesota, might well finish as the conference's leading scorer this season.
Otherwise, there's plenty of playing time available for all the former role players starting with promising 6-8 forward Anosike (9.5 points, 4.5 rebounds so far), 6-6 junior forward Owen Wignot (7.0, 2.5 so far) and junior point guard Kyle Griffin (2.4 points, 4.5 assists so far).
But Griffin's lack of quickness doesn't allow the Saints to play the uptempo style they did with Moore around. Freshman guard Rakeem Brookins looks to be the eventual answer, and he impressively scored 12 points in the final three minutes at Minnesota. But, he also has 10 turnovers against just three assists thus far, so he remains a work in progress. But astute program followers also recall that Moore struggled as a freshman, coming off the bench for the first seven games of his first season with the Saints.
The team also has a first-year head coach in Mitch Buonaguro, but he isn't the typically young up-and-coming coach that traditionally takes over conference program. Buonaguro not only has already coached in the conference (six seasons at Fairfield in the late 1980's and early 1990s, a time period that included two trips to the NCAA tournament for the Stags), but owns a national championship ring from his days as an assistant at Villanova (1985), has been on the sidelines for over 1,000 Division I games and served as Siena's lead assistant for the past five seasons under McCaffery.
HOW SIENA WILL SUCCEED: Rossiter and Jackson are just about sure-thing first-team all-conference players, and teams with two star players usually have some level of success. Then, there's considerable depth. The team is going eight deep right now, and junior guard Kyle Downey (minor knee injury) hasn't played yet and is likely to miss an additional couple of weeks. Most nights, Siena will go nine or 10 deep in games and has the potential to wear down opponents by shear numbers. Siena's most-recent successes, though, were not only predicated on its overall talent but its ability to run and press. Without a quick point guard right now, it hasn't been able to be anywhere near as effective in that aspect of its game. The answer might be Brookins, who looks to be one of the quickest players in the league. But he has exhibited more of a shoot-first mentality thus far. His development this season will be a major aspect in just how good the Saints can be this season. The team also likely needs a third scoring option, whether its Wignot or the currently injured Downey coming off the bench.
COACH'S COMMENTS: "The biggest challenge to me is to keep the program where it is," said coach Buonaguro. "Our biggest hole is the one left by Ronald Moore ... he ran our team. Right now we're still a work in progress."
PREDICTION: The perception here is that second place might be high expectations for a team with so much transition. Still, there's enough talent in place for the team to contend for another league crown but it won't reach those heights without settling the point-guard situation. Brookins' development might be the most-important part of the current season. The feeling here is that Fairfield remains the favorite for the regular-season title, and Siena could finish anywhere from second to fourth.