Clinching regular-season title hasn’t slowed Saints

There are several similarities between Siena and Niagara heading into their game tonight at 7 at the
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There are several similarities between Siena and Niagara heading into their game tonight at 7 at the Gallagher Center.

Since the last time they faced each other, each team has lost just once, both by giving up 90 points in close games at Rider.

Both teams have 22 wins and are coming off BracketBusters victories over Missouri Valley Conference opponents.

The big difference is that the Saints have clinched the top seed in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, while the Purple Eagles still have a little work to do to clinch the No. 2.

That doesn’t mean that Siena will approach this game, which will be televised live on ESPNU, any differently than it would have if there was more at stake, though. The Saints have all the reasons they need to keep going hard with two games left in the regular season, like maintaining their RPI and not giving Niagara any more confidence than it already has.

“It’s a very businesslike approach,” Siena head coach Fran McCaffery said. “What do we have to do to win the next game? Stay consistent with our sub rotations, our starters, whatever we think is the best game plan for that game, whether we’re going to press, going to run, going to zone, going to man. It’s based on the film we review for that week. And then the same thing will happen before the next game.”

The Saints, 15-1 in the MAAC and 22-6 overall, wrap up the reg­ular season at Canisius with a 2 p.m. game on Sunday.

It might be tempting for McCaffery to juggle his lineup with the idea of resting his starters, getting more playing time for his freshmen and testing various personnel combinations, but he said he won’t do that in either game this weekend.

“That was what the Italy trip was for, experimenting,” he said. “Once we start the season, there’s no experimenting.”

With senior forward Josh Duell back in the lineup, the Saints are healthy and pretty fresh, considering it’s near the end of the long season.

Siena has played just once since Feb. 16, the 81-75 win over Northern Iowa on Saturday. The Saints have won 12 of their last 13.

The only loss was at Rider, 90-88, and Niagara’s only loss in its last nine games was at Rider last Wednesday, 90-87.

The Saints’ offense caught fire against the Purple Eagles on Jan. 24, shooting 60 percent from the field in an 82-65 win.

Siena’s RPI is No. 25, according to www.relatimerpi.com, and 26 on www.rpiratings.com, compared to 61 and 63 for Niagara.

That might suggest that the Saints are in good shape to get an at-large bid to the NCAA tourn­ament, but there’s still at least as many doubters among the analysts as believers. On www.espn.com, Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology has Niagara in the tournament and not Siena, and Mark Schlabach wrote in his “Bubble Watch” that being 0-4 against teams in the RPI top 50 hurts Siena.

With all the speculation swirling around, the bottom line tonight is that Siena is facing one of its toughest conference rivals in a small, loud gym.

“Anytime you play Niagara, it’s an important game, whether it’s the beginning, middle or the end of the season, because of what [head coach] Joe [Mihalich] has been able to accomplish in the time he’s been there,” McCaffery said. “If you’re going to win this league, you have to go through Niagara at some point.”

The Purple Eagles have four players averaging double-figure scoring, led by Tyrone Lewis at 16.5 points per game.

Niagara has held six of its last eight opponents under 60 points. The Eagles are first in the MAAC in steals per game, and third in the country at 10.6 spg.

“They have a lot of weapons,” McCaffery said. “And it’s a very difficult environment up there. But I think when it’s all said and done, their players and our players enjoy those types of games. That’s what it’s all about–packed house, national television audience. That’s what they want.”

Categories: College Sports

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