Basketball: Siena men open season tonight at Duke

Siena men’s basketball coach Jimmy Patsos has talked during the preseason about building and maintai
Siena College head coach Jimmy Patsos will take the Saints to Durham, N.C., tonight to open the season against defending national champion Duke.
Siena College head coach Jimmy Patsos will take the Saints to Durham, N.C., tonight to open the season against defending national champion Duke.

Categories: College Sports

Siena men’s basketball coach Jimmy Patsos has talked during the preseason about building and maintaining the foundation of the program.

Today, the Saints begin to see what their ceiling looks like.

After an 11-20 season in Patsos’ second year here, Siena has assembled some building blocks that should support a big turnaround. That mostly will be reflected in how the Saints perform in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, where Siena appears to have the potential to be a thorn in the side of the top two teams, Iona and Manhattan.

In the meantime, they will kickoff 2015-16 against the model of a college basketball program — Duke University — at Cameron Indoor Stadium at 7 tonight (ESPNU). And it doesn’t get any less rugged on Sunday, when Siena will travel to the University of Wisconsin to complete a doubleheader against the two teams that were in last season’s national championship game, won by Duke.

“What they’ve done at Duke consistently has been unbelievable, and that’s kind of woken me up about building a foundation that survives tough years or injury,” Patsos said. “And last year, I don’t think we were ready for the cracks that came, whether it was injuries or personal stuff.”

Siena won three straight MAAC tournament championships from 2008 to 2010, but hasn’t reached the title game since.

Patsos’ first season showed promise, when the Saints won the CBI postseason tournament to finish with 20 victories, but Siena flopped last season, when it lost two important forwards, Brett Bisping and Imoh Silas, to injury early and had more roster defections later.

The versatile, hard-nosed 6-foot-8 Bisping is back to spearhead the roster along with junior Marquis Wright, who may be the best point guard in the conference. Siena also got good news when the NCAA allowed Troy High School graduate Javion Ogunyemi to play this season after the center had transferred to Boston University, then back to Siena this summer.

“Having Brett back is great,” Patsos said. “He just does a lot of little things. Brett Bisping’s not afraid to kind of take over and also score. Brett’s good, he’s the nicest guy off the court, but he does the little things and now is also trying to score like a real leader on the court.”

“All around we weren’t happy with how last year went,” Bisping said. “I think Marquis and myself need to take on more ourselves as players, take some responsibility for the team.

“We’re going to play to our strengths. Marquis is a phenomenal point guard, obviously, so that’s a good place to start. But we have some size inside, we like to offensive-rebound and rebound in general, but we also like to run, so our big men have to be in shape to keep up.”

Wright was second in the MAAC in assists last season and increased his scoring average from 8.7 points per game as a freshman to 12.5 last year.

In two seasons, he’s started all but one game, and was the only player on the roster to start in all 31 games.

“Everyone loves him,” Bisping said. “He plays hard. He has become more vocal this year. He’s one of those guys who plays consistently for us on a day-to-day basis, and we really rely on him. He knows that, he knows the impact he has on this team, so he’s taken it upon himself to be that leader.”

Ogunyemi, a 6-8, 239-pounder, showed even more improvement on the offensive end.

After averaging 1.9 points as a freshman, he showed crafty moves and an ability to finish last season to average 9.3.

“Javion is a huge factor for us,” Patsos said. “He had a good year, he’s experienced, he’s smart. But he can score down there.”

Another junior, forward Lavon Long, continues to get better, but needs to stay out of foul trouble.

The most highly contested spot in the starting lineup is at two guard, where 6-5 senior Ryan Oliver is the incumbent, but is being pressed by effervescent freshman Nico Clareth, who had 24 points, seven rebounds and five steals in 27 minutes of an exhibition victory over Division II Indiana University (Pa.).

“He’s got the energy and enthusiasm. He’s a swagger-type guy,” Patsos said. “And I know he writes that on his sneakers, but we thought that anyway. Nico’s good. He makes shots, he’s got a lot of energy, he’s 6-4 as a guard, he does a lot of different stuff. But he brings a lot of energy. That’s what’s interesting. Should we start him, or do we want his energy coming off the bench?

“I’m not going to rein him in.”

Siena will play two MAAC games in early December, then return to its rough non-conference schedule before the MAAC season heats up in earnest in the New Year.

The Saints’ home opener is Nov. 28, when Patsos’ former team, Loyola, comes to town. The Albany Cup game against the University at Albany is Dec. 12.

“I don’t want to play everybody who went to the Final Four,” Patsos joked, referring to the Duke-Wisconsin meat grinder, “but you have to play good teams to get better because the MAAC is our goal. We play everybody twice, and 20 games in the MAAC will determine the success of this team.”

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