Eight will have to be enough for the Siena men’s basketball team.
The Saints open the 2011-12 season at 7 tonight against Navy at the Times Union Center with a short bench due to injuries and NCAA rulings.
Head coach Mitch Buonaguro will have just eight scholarship players, four of whom are freshmen, at his disposal, which creates problems ranging from fatigue to game strategy.
“I’ve already adjusted my coaching,” Buonaguro said. “We’re practicing less. Secondly, we’ve got to play differently on defense. It’s hard to play one defense when you’ve only got eight guys for 40 minutes.
“I don’t want to give my hand away to Ed DeChellis, but you’re going to see some different things. I’ve got to be creative with this team. There’s going to have to be things we do to get teams off balance.”
DeChellis, who left Penn State to coach Navy after last season, has guided the Midshipmen to their first 2-0 start in nine seasons, with victories over Longwood (78-70) and Penn State Altoona (88-54).
Siena senior Owen Wignot was recruited by DeChellis, and chose Siena over Penn State and Temple.
“It’s going to be interesting,” Wignot said. “He’s a great guy, and if I had gone to Penn State, he would’ve been my coach for the last three years.”
Wignot could find himself guarding Navy’s best player, 6-foot-3, 219-pound senior Jordan Sugars.
The Midshipmen start four sophomores with Sugars, who averaged 16 points and six rebounds per game last year.
“He’s a physical 6-4 player who can do everything,” Buonaguro said. “You’ve really got to go into the game thinking you’ve got to take him out of the game. And it’s hard, because they go to him. They get him the ball in key spots in the game. They run a lot of plays for him. He could’ve played at a much higher level.”
Buonaguro said his short bench will be a disadvantage mostly on defense, because he’ll be limited in the number of different looks he can present, and he has to closely monitor how tired players get.
He wants to run off defensive rebounds, a Siena trademark in recent years, but the short bench will have an impact on how much the Saints can do that, also.
“With eight scholarship players, we’ve got to worry about running out of gas,” Buonaguro said.
That situation will only get worse if junior forward OD Anosike, the Saints’ best player, gets into foul trouble, which has been an issue at times in his first two seasons.
“We’ve got to keep Anosike out of foul trouble,” Buonaguro said. “That’s the key to every game, because he’s a very good player. He was foul-prone last year.
Offensively, I know how we’re going to play. We’re going to try and run, and run sets, like we did last year, but without the great inside player. But defensively, I’ve got to be creative.”
Another question mark for Siena is how the freshmen will respond to playing in front of a college crowd in a big arena for the first time.
Evan Hymes, the 5-8 point guard who has replaced the injured Rakeem Brookins in the starting lineup, will be asked to stay on the floor as much as possible, because his backup, Davonte Beard, another freshman, is more comfortable as a shooting guard.
Buonaguro said he’s impressed with the speed and quickness of Hymes, ranking him in the same category as Ronald Moore.
“Hymes has been a pleasant surprise,” Buonaguro said. “He’s played well. He’s got Ronald Moore quickness. I’m a little worried about his body, to be honest with you. I’m worried about him getting nailed or getting hurt. He’s not physical, but is he quick. And he can run a team and make a shot.”
“They all seem really excited to play in front of 8,000 people,” Wignot said of the freshmen.
The fans will get their first look at a team trying to find its identity, which could be an ongoing process for the Saints.
Gone are the days when Siena came into a season expecting to win a MAAC championship and reach the NCAA tournament.
“It’s going to be a team that a lot of people are going to be curious how they’ll play, including me,” Buonaguro said. “I’ve done a lot more teaching this year.
“Any coach expects to go into every game and win, whether you have tradition or not. With this team, what we’ve got to have is improve. Whether we play hard every night, that’s one thing that I’m going to measure. Do we play together? Do we play smart? Those are things we’re going to have to do.”
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