Opponent, not seeding, important to Siena

The Siena Saints don’t care so much about where they’re seeded in the NCAA tournament and where they
PHOTOGRAPHER:

“I think they’re the Saints,” a Butler Un­iversity student said to two of his schoolmates as they walked into Hinkle Fieldhouse on Feb. 20.

“Yeah, I think you’re right. Their mascot is a Saint Bernard.”

Siena College, the smallest of 65 schools, by undergraduate enrollment, to make the NCAA men’s basketball tournament last year, still has enough obscurity that some college kids in Indianapolis aren’t 100 percent sure who they are.

That’s OK, because that works all kinds of ways.

“Joe Lunardi? Leonardi?” Siena senior power forward Alex Franklin said on Wednesday, trying to come up with the name of ESPN’s resident practioner of the nebulous pseudoscience called “bracketology.”

Siena (27-6) introduced itself to the NCAA tournament in 1989, but has really gotten acquainted in the last three seasons, when the Saints twice won in the first round, and they gained another automatic bid on Monday by winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament.

Based on early projections, the Saints are probably going to get a No. 12 seed, and have a better chance at a 13 than an 11, when CBS (WRGB Ch. 6) announces the brackets from 6-7 tonight. The Saints were a 12 when they upset Vanderbilt in 2008, and were seeded ninth when knocking off No. 8 Ohio State in double overtime last year.

As of Friday night, Lunardi had Georgetown, Butler, Temple and Maryland listed as potential No. 5’s, with the Hoyas playing Siena in San Jose, but all of that was subject to change with each round of conference tournaments.

By Saturday, Georgetown had migrated elsewhere, and Brigham Young had moved into the No. 5 seed against Siena.

As far as the Saints are concerned, the talk is all so much ether, anyway.

They don’t care so much about where they’re seeded and where they’ll play as they are about who they get matched up against.

“To be honest, I have no idea how they do it,” Siena head coach Fran McCaffery said. “I just know that we have a good team. And I’ve been impressed with the committee’s sense of fairness over the years.”

“I really don’t mind where we’re seeded,” Franklin said. “The NCAA did a great job in previous years giving us a good seed and a good matchup. I know it’s going to work out for us again. Either way, we’re going to have to play a great team.

“I’d like to play a team we can run on. If we’re playing against a team that has a slower pace, maybe we can speed them up.”

That was the case in each of the last two years, against Vanderbilt, then Ohio State.

The concern against both oppon­ents was that their size advantage could counterbalance Siena’s quickness.

That didn’t work out at all against the Commodores, who lost, 83-62, and point guard Ronald Moore’s two big three-pointers barely got Siena past the Buckeyes.

In the second round, Siena met opponents who could handle their press and traps better, guard-or­iented Villanova and No. 1 overall seed Louisville.

For any low-seeded team with aspirations of making the Sweet 16, there might be some advantage to being in the 11-13 range, because you wouldn’t see a 1 or a 2 until the round of 16. The Saints don’t put much stock in that kind of thinking, because they’ll face stiff challenges every step of the way, no matter what the seeds.

“I guess you could say, in ret­rospect, being a higher seed, just by the way it’s set up, that it would be an easier road to the championship, but you don’t know who’s going to be a one or two seed,” Moore said. “A great team could be a three or four seed, so it’s really a toss-up when looking at all that.”

“I look at it like this: Everybody you play from here on in is going to be really good,” McCaffery said. “You can debate somebody being better than somebody else. But you know, Louisville was the No. 1 seed last year, and they didn’t get to the Final Four.”

“I really don’t pay attention to it,” Franklin said. “Yeah, I look at ESPN sometimes — Joe Lunardi? Leonardi? — and the bracketology, but that’s just one guy. He doesn’t have the ultimate say where we’re going to be playing. I’ll just wait for Selection Sunday, and I’ll be as excited as everybody else when we find out where we’re playing.”

Moore said playing Louisville was the polar opposite of what Siena faced against Ohio State.

The Saints, who rely heavily on a starting lineup of three seniors and two juniors, showed the ability to apply their style to both teams.

Siena had a four-point lead on Louisville with less than eight minutes left, but Terrence Williams, now a member of the New Jersey Nets, took over, and the Cardinals won, 79-72.

“I think we do good against teams that don’t really run as much,” Moore said. “With our transition game, teams that aren’t as good in transition are the best teams for us, to be able to limit them to one shot and really run it up their backs. That’s a real threat for us, to get into our press and try to turn teams over.

“It was a big difference last year. Ohio State played a more halfcourt, set-style of offense. Turning around and playing Louisville, who wanted to trap us and wanted to press us, was definitely a complete turnaround. I think we did a good job with only one day turnaround getting ready for Louisville.”

The experience factor has shown to be valuable in the NCAA tournament.

Not only has this team played in the tournament twice, but McCaffery has loaded up on difficult non-conference games, although he was much less successful pulling that off this season.

“I guess you could say playing on that kind of stage, you don’t really think about how tired you get, you just keep going and going and doing whatever it takes to win,” Moore said. “I think whoever we play, even if it’s a team just like us, we’ll do the same thing we did last year, try to go out there and play 40 minutes of basketball and doing whatever you have to do.”

This team also has gotten used to shouldering the burden of high expectation from the fans.

“You’re supposed to win [the MAAC], being the No. 1 seed,” Franklin said. “Now that that’s over and done with, I’m glad it’s over with, I’m happy to move forward the NCAA tournament and we’re probably going to be the underdog. I don’t look at it as if we’re the underdog, I’m saying outsiders will see us an underdog. We feel like we can compete with anybody.”

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