All eyes are on heavily favored Siena

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference is calling its final basketball tournament at the Times Union
PHOTOGRAPHER:

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference is calling its final basketball tournament at the Times Union Center “Where Magic Happens,” based on all the memories from past tournaments.

The only magic the Siena Saints are interested in is making the rest of the field disappear.

The top-seeded Saints (17-1, 24-6) will be heavy favorites to win it all today at 4:30, when they face No. 9 Manhattan (5-14, 11-19) a 94-79 winner over Loyola on Friday. The game will be the second of four men’s quarterfinals at the Times Union Center.

The two-time defending champions set a record for conference wins in a season, have lost just three of their last 44 conference games and have won 35 straight at home, the second-longest streak in the country behind Kansas.

Also, for the first time ever, a team placed its entire starting lineup on postseason all-star teams — Alex Franklin, Ronald Moore and Ryan Rossiter made the first team, Edwin Ubiles is on the second and junior shooting guard Clarence Jackson is on the third. Franklin, a 6-foot-5 senior power forward from Reading, Pa., was subsequently voted MAAC Player of the Year.

With all that weighted in the Saints’ favor, it will clearly be a huge upset if Siena doesn’t win the tournament.

Having won it and also advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament in each of the last two seasons, the Saints are OK with that.

“The pressure’s always going to be on us,” Franklin said,

surrounded by reporters and TV after winning Player of the Year on Thursday. “We’re playing on our home court, we’re really motivated to get it done again, especially us seniors. I want to share this exper­ience with those young guys. We’re ready to get the job done.

“When you’re winning, the expectations will come. We have a great group of guys who can handle the expectations responsibly. That’s what we’ve done, and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”

Siena swept two regular-season games with the Jaspers, 83-68 at the Times Union Center on Jan. 18, and 66-58 in the Bronx on Jan. 24.

Franklin scored 23 points, and Rossiter had 19 points and 14 rebounds in the first game.

In the second game, the Saints played without Ubiles and backup guard Kyle Downey, due to injuries.

Franklin, who had 27 points and 10 rebounds, and Rossiter each posted a double-double.

Rico Pickett, who finished the regular season as the leading scorer in the MAAC at 17.1 points per game, had 20 points, but didn’t touch the ball in the closing minutes. He scored 26 in the first meeting. He had a career-high 33 points against Loyola on Friday.

“What you’ve got to do is not let him get in that kind of rhythm,” said Siena assistant coach Andrew Francis, who was responsible for the Manhattan scouting report. “He really can get it going and carried them through the first half.

“He’s played really well against us, he makes shots when he’s wide open. He can create off the dribble and he’s really good in the open court. But they have other good players, too. [Darryl] Crawford picked up where Pickett left off in the second half.”

“I’m foaming at the mouth,” Pickett said of the matchup against Siena.

Franklin said the 6-foot-6 Ubiles, typically a quiet, reserved person off the court, is looking forward to the opportunity to show the MAAC coaches that they made a mistake by not voting him to the first team.

“It’s obvious that Edwin Ubiles is one of the best players in the league,” Siena head coach Fran McCaffery said. “I mean, in my opinion, he’s the best. And the fact that the best player in the league is not on the first team, I think, can only be explained by the fact that he missed some games.”

At various times, Ubiles has been recovering from knee and shoulder injuries this season.

McCaffery said that the area in which Ubiles’ game has suffered the most through the injuries, and the time spent getting his fitness back, has been rebounding.

“He’s getting closer,” McCaffery said. “I still don’t think he’s rebounding the way he’s capable. I don’t think he’s gone in there. Not that he was ever Dennis Rodman, but he’s a much better rebounder than he’s showed, and I think that’s because of the injuries.

“We’ve talked about it, and hopefully, he’ll be better this weekend.”

The Saints got a boost to their bench by the return of sophomore guard Kyle Downey with two games left in the regular season, after had missed nine games with a broken foot suffered in practice on Jan. 19.

He didn’t play at Rider, but totaled 11 valuable minutes in the finale against Marist.

Downey, known for his rigorous workout schedule, said he felt fit after the Marist game.

“He was tired in the first half, though, regardless of what he said,” McCaffery said. “He was an absol­ute maniac with his approach to this injury. He was in the pool, he was everywhere. He had that bone stim thing on all the time, he’s in the whirlpool, he’s in the weight room. He didn’t gain an ounce. As soon as he could run, as soon as he could shoot, he did everything he could to make sure he wouldn’t miss a beat when he did step back on the floor. And I thought he was really good.

“He should be the blueprint for any athlete coming back from an injury.”

NOTEBOOK

Freshman guard Denzel Yard, who has been suspended by the team for academic reasons and hasn’t played since Dec. 12, has withdrawn from Siena.

“I regret that things didn’t work out with Denzel,” McCaffery said in a release. “We wish him the best of luck in the future.”

Manhattan 94, Loyola 79

Pickett’s career-high 33 points led ninth-seeded Manhattan past eighth-seeded Loyola (Md.) in a play-in game.

Darryl Crawford added 16 points and 10 rebounds for the Jaspers (11-19), who avenged a 71-59 loss to Loyola to close the regular season.

Shane Walker had 26 points for the Greyhounds (13-17), who also got 13 from Jamal Barney.

Loyola managed to whittle a 19-point deficit to 69-64 with eight minutes left. But Pickett hit a layup and two free throws on a flagrant foul call with 4:40 remaining to increase Manhattan’s advantage.

Manhattan sprinted to a 17-4 lead and took a 51-36 edge into the break behind 23 first-half points from Pickett.

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