Unless the MAAC changes its schedule again, there will be plenty of time for head coach Carmen Maciariello and his Siena men’s basketball team “to work more on ourselves” after back-to-back weekends that saw the Saints struggle to score with the ease they demonstrated in their first six games.
Siena’s game Wednesday against Canisius was officially postponed Monday as the Golden Griffins continue to deal with coronavirus-related disruptions. Meanwhile, Siena’s upcoming weekend, for now, remains open, leaving the Saints without another game until it heads to Niagara for a Feb. 12-13 series.
Regardless of whether the first-place Saints play anyone prior to those mid-February games, though, Maciariello made clear after Sunday’s 63-50 win at Marist that the focus for his team needs to shift to being more on itself with just more than a month until the start of the MAAC tournament.
Siena mostly breezed through a 6-0 start even as junior star Jalen Pickett missed the second half of those opening games. In those half-dozen games, the Saints averaged 75.8 points per game, made 48.8% of its field-goal attempts and easily led the MAAC in offensive efficiency.
Then, these last four games saw the Saints stumble on the offensive end.
Siena’s defense was solid during its 2-2 stretch, and its opponents — Marist and Saint Peter’s — certainly had something to do with the Saints only averaging 56 points on 37.5% shooting. But there was more to the Saints’ offensive decline than playing a couple defensive-minded clubs with Pickett operating at a less-than-superstar level as he continues to work back from his hamstring injury.
No, what mostly plagued Siena is that Marist and Saint Peter’s forced the Saints to need to execute in a half-court setting in games that generally included fewer possessions — and that combination exposed some of the struggles associated with a team that, despite all its firepower, only has three players that played more than 200 minutes last season for it and has had severely limited practice time because of pandemic-related concerns and issues.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re competing more in practice, and working on Siena basketball and not worrying about anyone else,” Maciariello said.
The second-year head coach said he’d “take the hit” for Siena’s recent offensive woes, saying the team had devoted too much time to preparing defensively for opponents at his direction because he gets “so caught up in wanting to stop other teams.”
That, though, isn’t the whole truth. Yes, Maciariello elects how much time to devote to different aspects of the game during practices, but he is also dealing with a time crunch each week because of the MAAC’s constantly changing schedule and the need to handle practices differently during this season played amid a pandemic. There are trade-offs that need to be made — and Siena, which dealt with three nearly consecutive program pauses to close out its 2020, found a way to start 8-2 and position itself atop the MAAC.
That’s impressive on its own, and has the Saints in a better spot compared to where they were last season at this time. Last season, Siena was 5-5 through 10 games, but that stretch included nine of something — non-conference games — that the Saints had none of this season. Siena’s 8-2 start this season, though, also compares favorably with the team’s 6-4 conference start from last season, and Maciariello said he expects Siena to experience a similar surge during the second half of this season as it did a season ago when the Saints started 10-10 and finished 20-10.
“We found out how to coach this team after about 20 games last year, right?” Maciariello said. “We’re at 10 games right now. It’s still a learning curve with these guys.”
Siena senior Manny Camper said the next step for the Saints is developing the “second layer” of its offense, meaning the Saints need to be able to execute more than the first option on its set plays. At times, Siena’s spacing has broken down as plays extend deep into the shot clock, and Camper said the team needs more “hard cuts” and “better screening” beyond a play’s initial motions.
Too often, Siena has settled for 3-point shots or relied on a player to create a shot for himself off the dribble late in the shot clock.
“We want to get those possessions out of our repertoire,” Maciariello said.
And, for the moment, the Saints have a lot of free time in front of them to work on that. After not playing in November or December, Siena played 10 games in the final 29 days of January. The team is well within range of the 13-game minimum it needs to meet to be eligible to compete in the NCAA tournament, and wants to make sure it uses its February to be ready for its March.
“We’ve got a lot of improvement left in us,” Pickett said.