A Seat in the Bleachers: Siena ready for bigger challenges

The only problem with Siena next season will be keeping egos and expectations in check.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum.

OK, the Saints got fed to the Wildcats in the second round, but it wasn’t that bad. Siena was only down by 10 at halftime, and had plenty of chances to make it a game in the second half, but Villanova was just bigger, faster and better, and never gave Siena a moment to breathe.

In the first round at the

St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla., though, Siena faced the

16th-ranked team in the country, from the powerful Southeastern Conference, which eats the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference like an inconsequential saucer of tapas.

Ever see Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life”? Siena was to Vanderbilt what the “wahfer theen meent” was to Terry Jones’ grot­esquely gluttonous character. The second-smallest school in the

65-team NCAA tournament exploded Vanderbilt from the gut out.

Siena head coach Fran McCaffery said before the tournament started that he expected the Tampa crowd would get behind his team in the Vanderbilt game, but it never

really happened that way, for three reasons.

One, Siena was in control all the way, so there was no motivation for the thousands of neutral fans to embrace the lovable underdog.

Two, Vanderbilt just didn’t have that Evil Empire juice. This wasn’t Belmont against Duke.

Three, a lot of people believed Siena was going to win, anyway. Including me, whose history of NCAA bracket predictions would make a dartboard blush. Lovable? OK. Underdog? No way.

That’s why the biggest job

McCaffery, who resurrected a 6-24

disaster, will have next year is to make sure the Saints never get ahead of themselves.

And, boy, will that be hard to do, even though he has smart, experienced players, two nice players coming in and only one senior leaving, Tay Fisher, a three-point shooter off the bench.

One way McCaffery plans to keep the egos and expectations in check, and to further construct the toughness necessary to face the NCAA tournament, is to build an even more brutal non-conference schedule than the Saints had this season.

After the regular season was over, the Saints were still kicking themselves for not having beaten Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, way back in November, which would seem implausible, unless you saw how confidently and comfortably they played in an eight-point loss amidst towering walls of Orange noise. This team isn’t scared of anything, and plays so unselfishly that you get spoiled watching them.

McCaffery wants to play teams like Memphis, which demolished Siena in one of the worst losses in program history, and Kenny Hasbrouck, who was just named mid-major player of the year, has no problem with that.

A few days after the Tigers ate the Saints alive, I asked Hasbrouck if that game would be a reference point for the rest of the season, and his answer was, “That game is

going to be a reference point for the rest of my career.”

After watching four upsets in one day at the Forum, including Siena’s domination of Vanderbilt, I expected that to be a reference point for the whole tournament, because

everyone loves upsets. Now, we have four No. 1’s in the Final Four for the first time in forever, which suggests that everything sort of works out the way it’s supposed to.

Everybody knows Siena is supposed to be really good next year. Funny how things work out.

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