LOUDONVILLE — Two seasons ago, it definitely couldn’t have been taken seriously.
And, last season, it would have been almost as difficult to believe.
But, this season, when Siena men’s basketball head coach Carmen Maciariello said earlier this week that he was “not really worried about” whether the Saints will have junior Jalen Pickett — the reigning MAAC Player of the Year — available for Friday’s and Saturday’s 7 p.m. MAAC games at Rider, it was notable how believable the idea seemed.
To be clear: Pickett is Siena’s top player, he is the best player in the MAAC and there are few point guards in the country that mean more to their respective teams than what Pickett does to the Saints.
But Maciariello and his coaching staff have stocked the 2020-21 Saints with plenty of talent. A program that three seasons ago didn’t have a player on its season-ending roster average double-digit scoring now looks like it has a star or a potential star in each of its classes of players.
So, Siena, playing without Pickett last Sunday because of a right hamstring injury that has him as a game-day decision to play against Rider, mostly cruised past Fairfield. The Saints never trailed by more than four points in the first half, led at halftime and maintained at least a two-possession lead throughout the game’s second half.
“They didn’t miss a beat,” Rider head coach Kevin Baggett said.
Overall, Siena (4-0, 4-0) didn’t struggle much during its opening two MAAC series. Despite only winning its first game by a single point, Siena has only trailed for 18.7% of the minutes in its first four games and the Saints’ largest deficit at any point in any of their opening games was six points.
Siena was plus-33 in Pickett’s minutes during the Saints’ first three games, and minus-2 in the few minutes he didn’t play. Without Pickett available, though, the rest of the Saints showed last Sunday they were capable of carrying the load.
Senior Manny Camper, an All-MAAC first-team selection last season, offered 17 points, 12 rebounds and six assists.
Freshman Aidan Carpenter, starting in place of Pickett, needed only 11 shot attempts to score a game-high 19 points.
Junior Jackson Stormo and sophomore Kyle Young — Siena’s duo at the 5 position — combined to score 16 points and collect six rebounds.
And, sophomore Jordan King — a walk-on last season, a scholarship player this year — scored 18 points.
“They’re not a team just to rely on one person,” said Baggett, whose team is 3-5 in MAAC and 3-8 overall.
And the Saints don’t have to do that this season, which is why the program looks capable of matching — and exceeding — its Division I record for most wins in a row this weekend, regardless of if Pickett is able to play. Siena has won 14 consecutive games going back to last season, leaving it one shy of the 15-game mark the 2009-10 Saints set.
That squad was the last of Fran McCaffery’s Siena teams, and remains the most-recent group of Saints to play in the NCAA tournament. Siena needs Pickett in its lineup to reach the goals it has for this season, but the quality depth the Saints have accumulated on their roster in the last few years means that they don’t need to have Pickett suit up for a January MAAC game unless he’s “100% able to go.”
“You know, we’re going to be cautious, to be honest with you,” Maciariello said.
The Saints could have both freshman Colin Golson (COVID-19 protocol) and senior Denzel Tchougang (knee) available for their games at Rider, Maciariello said. Neither Golson nor Tchougang has played yet this season.
JAQUES’ SAINTS SEEK ROAD WIN
Last weekend’s wins were a “relief” for Siena women’s basketball head coach Ali Jaques.
Successfully defending its home court against a struggling Rider squad was a necessity for the Saints if they’re going to contend this season in the MAAC — and Friday’s and Saturday’s games at Quinnipiac offer the Saints an opportunity to show they can be a “great team” this season.
“If we stay healthy,” Jaques said during a Wednesday teleconference with reporters, “I think we have a chance to do that.”
Siena (2-2, 2-2) was picked to finish sixth in the MAAC preseason poll, while Quinnipiac (4-2, 6-4) was selected to finish in a second-place tie with a Fairfield club that swept Siena earlier this season.
So a chance to play Quinnipiac represents an opportunity for the Saints to show they’ve grown this season — and that they can knock off one of the league’s top teams on the road.
Siena did that last season when it defeated Quinnipiac 68-60 in Hamden, Connecticut. That victory was the Saints’ first-ever against Quinnipiac, which had won the first 14 meetings between the teams.
“That was a big moment for us and for our program,” Jaques said.
Quinnipiac is on a three-game winning streak, and sophomore Mikala Morris leads Quinnipiac with per-game averages of 13 points and 9.7 rebounds. For Siena, Isis Young is averaging a team-best 17 points per game.
Both games at Quinnipiac start at 4 p.m.