LOUDONVILLE — Just as it was a season ago, scoring won’t be an issue for the Siena men’s basketball team.
How well the Saints can defend, though, that’s the question — and the answer to it will determine the level of success this season’s Saints are able to reach.
“We’ve got to be able to defend at a high level if we want to go places we want to take this team,” Siena head coach Carmen Maciariello said ahead of his team’s MAAC games this weekend at Fairfield. “We’ve got to be able to do it with defense.”
With junior Jalen Pickett leading Siena’s offense, the Saints are rarely going to struggle to score. He led Siena to registering the MAAC’s most-efficient offense last season, and the reigning MAAC Player of the Year has already shown through Siena’s 2-0 start that he’s made improvements to his game. Against Monmouth, the guard from Rochester was stronger with his dribble, able to make passes from some new angles and looked more comfortable taking long-range shots.
That Pickett improved his offensive game, again, wasn’t much of a surprise. What was noteworthy, though, was to see how often the Saints used Pickett — their point guard — to defend Monmouth’s 4s earlier this week. That move was made to allow Siena senior Manny Camper — the Saints’ 4 — to defend Monmouth’s top perimeter player in Deion Hammond, while Siena’s 6-foot-0 wing players, graduate student Nick Hopkins and sophomore Jordan King, defended Monmouth’s other perimeter players.
“We just try to look for the best matchups that can give us an advantage, and we also try to game plan and figure out how we can use our guys and their skill sets to the best of the ability,” Maciariello said.
In particular, on defense, that means Siena can use its top-two players — Pickett and Camper — in interesting ways this season since the supporting Saints include strong on-ball perimeter defenders such as Hopkins and King, plus 5s with solid length and size in junior Jackson Stormo and sophomore Kyle Young, a big-man combination made up of players that each stand 6-foot-9 and weigh at least 240 pounds.
The athleticism and versatility of Camper allows the 6-foot-7 senior to defend pretty much any opposing player in the MAAC. Meanwhile, Pickett has plus-size for a MAAC point guard at 6-foot-4 and 202 pounds, so he’s able to defend “up” a position or three — and has shown the ability to use his length to his advantage during his college career that’s seen him average one block per game.
Last season, Siena ranked seventh in MAAC play in defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, but the Saints’ strong second half was a direct result of the team improving their defensive play. This season, Maciariello wants the Saints defending at a higher level from the start of the season, and the team has a variety of defensive goals to try to reach every game.
Per Maciariello, those goals: hold opposing teams to worse than 42% shooting from the field; hold opposing teams to worse than 33% shooting from 3-point territory; register seven or more “Bernie’s,” a term the team uses to define a stretch of three consecutive scoreless defensive possessions; record a plus-four rebounding margin; and, to hold opponents to 64 or fewer points.
In Siena’s series against Monmouth, the 2-0 Saints hit some of those goals and missed others. Saturday’s and Sunday’s 4 p.m. games against Fairfield (2-4, 2-9) provide Siena a strong chance to meet its goals — and few excuses if they don’t.
While Fairfield has been a better offensive team in recent weeks since transfers Zach Crisler and Jake Wojcik — the latter a former Siena commit from when Jimmy Patsos led the Saints — became eligible to play and added shooting for the Stags, Fairfield’s offense still ranks as one of the least-efficient ones in the country.
Still, Maciariello described this weekend’s games as a “great test” for Siena. Fairfield competes hard, and the Stags have shown they’re capable of putting together an impressive game; their first victory was a 67-52 win against Iona and their second was a 72-56 win against Rider.
“If we defend and rebound, and compete for 40 minutes, I think we’ll be right there,” Maciariello said. “If we think we can just show up, [it’s] probably not going to be the outcome we want.”
Including both men’s and women’s programs, 20 of the MAAC’s 22 teams had at least a piece of their remaining schedule changed Friday.
Both Siena teams were affected by the league’s latest schedule changes, which were made “due to COVID-19 disruptions” around the league.
The Siena men’s team had three of its February series affected, while the Siena women’s team saw five of its remaining two-game series changed. The Siena women’s teams games this weekend against Rider and the following weekend against Quinnipiac remain unchanged, while nearly all of the team’s schedule after that through February saw some adjustments made to it.
Most notably, each Siena team will now play one series on non-consecutive days. The Siena men’s team will host Canisius on Feb. 10 and Feb. 24, while the Siena women’s team will host Niagara on Feb. 3 and 17. All four of those games are on Wednesdays.