When Fairfield visits Siena tonight (Friday) for a key early season conference matchup it will be the first time in a few years that a MAAC opponent might be perceived as the better team.
But, that's how the coaches voted in their preseason poll, picking Fairfield to win this year's regular-season crown and picking Siena for second.
And, that's what the records, thus far, indicate. Fairfield is 5-3 overall and coming in on a four-game winning streak. Siena is 2-5 overall, albeit against a difficult non-league schedule. Both teams won their only league games to date.
Heck, Fairfield was nearly the better team last March in the championship game of the conference tournament, holding a 16-point lead early in the second half before a loud, enthusiastic pro-Siena crowd rattled the young Stags (even Fairfield coach Ed Cooley admitted the crowd was a factor) down the stretch. Still, Siena had to survive a last-second shot from the corner by then-freshman guard Colin Nickerson at the end of regulation that set up the overtime session in which Siena finally took over.
Siena's air of invincibiility is also lacking this season. Its 38-game homecourt winning streak, which had been the second-longest nationally, ended in its opener against Vermont. Siena is currently 0-3 at home, its first 0-3 home start since moving to the Division I level in the 1976-77 season.
But ... Siena still has one home-court streak active. It hasn't lost at home to a conference opponent since Feb. 16, 2008 when it suffered an 83-76 overtime setback to Loyola. Since then the Saints have won 28 straight games, counting both regular-season and conference tournament contests, at its Times Union Center home-court confines.
Which leads us to tonight, as attractive an early season matchup as we'll get as preseason No. 1 meets No. 2; the upstart Stags against King of the Hill Siena
Prior to his team's meeting with Siena, Rider head coach Tommy Dempsey admitted he was one of three coaches to vote Siena as the top team in the coaches' preseason poll. Dempsey's reasoning is that Siena has earned that designation, coming off three consecutive league titles, and is still the team to beat until someone does just that.
And, then, Siena showed it wasn't ready to vacate its position of superiority just yet by beating the Broncs, 73-60, in Lawrenceville, N.J.
To be sure both Fairfield and Siena are vastly different teams than when they met in the MAAC tournament's championship game just nine months ago.
Siena graduated its "Big Three" of forwards Alex Franklin and Edwin Ubiles and guard Ronald Moore, all of them deserving of recognition as some of the program's all-time best players.
Fairfield's big loss, literally, was 6-foot-8 forward Anthony Johnson, but the Stags are different this year with a sense of familiarity as well.
Back are forwards Yorel Hawkins, Warren Edney and Greg Nero who all missed either the entire 2009-10 season (Edney and Nero), or the second half of it (Hawkins) with injuries.
Hawkins is currently in the starting lineup, averages 7.3 points per game and is fresh from his best effort of the season, a 16-point performance in the Stags' 72-52 victory over Howard on Tuesday.
Edney, who averages 7.3 points, has been in and out of the starting lineup. Nero, coming off the bench, averages 5.5 points and 3.9 rebounds in 20 minutes of playing time per contest.
The Stags also have arguably the conference's best young backcourt in sophomores Derek Needham, who averages 12.1 points and 5.5 assists (13 assists vs. Howard), and Colin Nickerson, who averages 6.5 points per game.
Siena's two key returnees from a year ago are 6-9 senior center Ryan Rossiter, whose 14.3 rebound-per-game average is the best nationally; and 6-4 senior guard Clarence Jackson, who averages 16.9 points, third best in the MAAC, but is coming off a 4-of-16 shooting performance in the Saints' recent overtime loss to Albany.
Siena currently is second in the MAAC in points scored (74.5), while Fairfield is the conference's best defensive team (54.9 points allowed per contest).
For sure it's an attractive matchup, and with much on the line so early in the season.