Saints have MAAC top seed in hand, but aren’t letting up

Siena is beginning to regain some notice on a national level, after some non-conference losses early
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Siena is beginning to regain some notice on a national level, after some non-conference losses early in the season dropped them off the radar.

There are plenty of teams in a holding pattern in front of them before they can land in the top 25, though, so, for now, all the Saints can do is forge ahead with their Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference schedule, which continues this weekend with the western New York swing.

The Saints will play at Niagara at 8 tonight in a game that will be televised on ESPN2, followed by a game at Canisius at 2 p.m. on Sunday.

Siena (14-0, 21-4) brings a 15-game winning streak to Niagara (6-8, 13-13), long­est in the country, and has clinched the No. 1 seed in the MAAC tournament and a berth in the National Invitation Tourn­ament. With all that in hand, this is no time to start coasting.

“Me, personally, I don’t look at the top 25,” senior forward Edwin Ubiles said. “I watch ESPN a lot, and I see a lot of those top-25 teams and watch a lot of games. Comparing us to a lot of them, I think we can compete with some of those teams. This is the time where we’ve got our best basketball going. Everybody’s clicking, our chemistry is there, so hopefully, we can sneak in there, maybe, if we run the table. But if not, try and get back to the NCAA tournament ane make some noise.”

“What [head coach] Fran [McCaffery] has done with this program since I’ve been here has been remarkable,” said Fairfield head coach Ed Cooley, after Siena beat the Stags on Monday, 69-67. “Why they’re not in the top 25 is beyond me. I think they deserve a lot more national respect than they’re getting. I see some other teams that are there, and there really isn’t much of a difference.”

Except that some of those teams have beaten Siena this season.

Northern Iowa, Georgia Tech and Temple checked in at Nos. 19, 20 and 21, respectively, on The Associated Press poll this week, with No. 18 Butler looming on Siena’s schedule next weekend in the ESPNU BracketBusters.

As of Wednesday, Siena, which garnered 18 points among teams also receiving AP votes and 28 points in the ESPN/USA.

Today coaches poll, was No. 33 according to www.RealtimeRPI.com, with a strength-of-schedule ranking of 123.

“The important thing for us is to just try and keep getting better and continue on the path that we’re on to put us in the best position possibly to win the conference tournament championship and win as many games as possible to maybe get an at-large bid,” McCaffery said.

“We have a couple games we’d like to take back, and then maybe we could talk about it [top 25], but there’s a lot of great teams out there, and we just have to keep playing who’s on our schedule,” junior center Ryan Rossiter said.

The Saints went through a stretch where they were having an easy time with MAAC opponents, winning the first six conference games by at least 11 points.

Loyola came the closest to beating the Saints, getting outscored, 17-4, at the end of the game to lose by six.

Fairfield presented a stiff challenge on Monday despite another rash of injuries, but in the final 12 minutes, the Stags got within two or three points of the lead four times, and Ubiles made a shot right away three times, and Clarence Jackson made two free throws with six seconds left the last time Fairfield got close.

The Stags lost by just two by virtue of a meaningless three-pointer by stellar freshman point guard Derek Needham.

“It obviously helps to have players that have been there before,” McCaffery said after the game. “We’ve played in so many games like this one. So it’s not like it’s something that’s going to rattle us. We’re going to come down and we’re going to get a good shot and play pretty solid defense, and we’re not going to turn it over.

“You know, we might still lose, but that’s going to put that much more pressure on you to score and to get a stop on us and not foul us. So our execution was good, our shot selection was very good. That’s what I would’ve expected, and more importantly, that’s what they expect from one another.”

“You never really know who’s going to give you that 20-point performance or that big rebound at the end of the game,” Rossiter said. “We don’t have to rely on one person to do everything on the team, and that’s where our success lies.”

“I’ve always believed that we could be a top-25 team, just from watching other teams,” Ubiles said. “We just have to prove it, like we have been doing, by getting wins. We even have a shot at a top-25 team coming up on the road, Butler, but first and foremost, we’ve got to go down to the Buffalo trip and button those games up first before we move ahead.”

The Purple Eagles had some injuries of their own to recover from early in the season, and they have been inconsistent all year, but are always a difficult opponent at the Gallagher Center.

“Every game we have played in that building since our guys have been here has been absolute mayhem,” McCaffery said. “That’s just what it’s going to be like.”

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