Saints focus on task at hand

Siena is breaking back into the national spotlight, riding a 13-game winning streak, but refuses to
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The Siena Saints have the longest winning streak in the country.

They have the second-longest home winning streak in the country.

They’re in firm command of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

All of that could change in a hurry today.

Siena will play host to Iona, which has established itself as the second-best team in the MAAC, at 7 p.m. at the Times Union Center.

Actually, if Iona wins, Siena would still be in good shape in the conference, with a two-game lead over the Gaels and five games left.

With all these ramifications swirling around and their re-emergence in the national conversation, the Saints haven’t allowed themselves to be pre-occupied with winning streaks and those types of side issues.

“It’s not an obsession,” head coach Fran McCaffery said. “We don’t talk about it. Whatever the next game is, we just try to win that one. And at the end, we will have an undefeated [conference] season if we keep doing it. If you look at who’s left, there are some pretty tough games.

“We’re going to stay sharp and play every game like it’s the national championship game.”

That starts tonight, when the Saints face an Iona team that is 9-3 in the MAAC, 17-6 overall and played well at the Old Spice Classic, taking Baylor, currently ranked No. 20 in the Associated Press poll, to overtime before losing.

Siena (12-0, 19-4) has won 13 straight overall and 32 straight at home, taking sole possession of the second spot on that list behind Kansas after Missouri lost at home to Texas A&M on Wednesday.

The Gaels, who prefer to press teams fullcourt, have won eight straight games and have held their opponents to under 40 percent shooting from the field.

This game could come down to who better handles the other team’s pressure.

“They’re going to press, change defenses and rotate personnel,” McCaffery said. “We typically have been pretty good against pressure, whether it be Iona’s, Louisville’s or anybody else’s. That said, they’re going to press. They’re quick and they’re deep.”

Siena’s offense got a boost with the return of senior small forward Edwin Ubiles to the lineup at Marist on Saturday, after he had missed three of the previous four games due to injury.

He also makes the Saints a better defensive team, because at 6-foot-7, he presents a daunting hurdle at the front of Siena’s 1-2-2 zone press.

“He’s phenomenal there,” McCaffery said. “We’ve had success with that press before we moved him there. He’s made a dramatic difference. But he makes a difference, whether we’re in man or zone or we’re man or zone press. He just makes a difference because his instincts are so good.

“A lot of times, you look at teams and think they’d be better defensively because they’re athletic. It doesn’t really matter. You could be non-athletic. If you have instincts and understand angles and know where you’re supposed to be on the floor depending on where the ball is, where the shooters are, where the drivers are, your defense will be better. For the most part, we have pretty good instinctive players.”

McCaffery said he expected Iona to be better this year.

The MAAC standings, behind Siena, have seen some shake-up and difficult-to-predict developments, but McCaffery said he saw signs of the Gaels’ improvement under head coach Kevin Willard.

At 8-4, Fairfield and Saint Peter’s are the only other two teams with winning conference records.

“One thing about Kevin, he’s going to do different things,” McCaffery said. “He’s not going to come at you with one thing. I could see it coming. All of a sudden,

everybody is surprised they’re 17-6. I’m not. You certainly shouldn’t be if you watched them in Florida. They were tremendous at the Old Spice, I thought.”

Besides the Baylor game, Iona lost by five to Florida State and beat Creighton at Old Spice.

The Gaels are led by sophomore point guard Scott Machado, but otherwise don’t really have one standout player who dominates the lineup.

Willard substitutes liberally and doesn’t have a player averaging more than 27.9 minutes per game. Machado (11.8) is the only Gael averaging double digits in scoring.

“It’s a very different prepar­ation,” McCafferry said. “That’s what makes a team harder to prepare for. Very few teams have a 7-footer [Jonathan Huffman] who shoots [threes]. You talk about pressing them, you’re pressing four guards–they’ve got handlers.

[Alejo] Rodriguez is a handful. He’s shooting 68 percent from the field at 6-9. How many people do that in the country? Not many.”

Siena point guard Ronald Moore is six points shy of 1,000 and leads the country in assists per game at 8.1.

He needs 45 assists to pass Marc Brown as the school’s all-time leader.

Junior center Ryan Rossiter is averaging 10.4 rebounds per game and is on pace to break the school’s Division I single-season record.

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