One is resuming its regular season, the other is ending it.
For both UAlbany and Siena, though, it’s a pivotal weekend of men’s basketball action, one made more important as the formats of the MAAC and America East Conference continue to adapt during this season played amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Siena plays at noon Saturday and Sunday at Niagara, while UAlbany hosts Stony Brook at 4 p.m. Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday. In returning from its latest pandemic-related pause, Siena finds itself needing to keep up in a conference setup that now values total wins over winning percentage, while UAlbany just found out days ago that this weekend’s games are the Great Danes’ last of the regular season.
The America East announced Wednesday that change, chopping off the final three games of UAlbany’s regular-season schedule. That makes this weekend’s games against Stony Brook that much more important for the Great Danes, who could finish as high as third place or as low as eighth depending on a combination of how they do and outcomes around the conference. UMBC and Vermont will serve as the top-two seeds for the upcoming America East playoffs and automatically advance to the semifinals, while the Nos. 3 and 4 teams will host playoff “pods” from which the winners will advance to the semifinals.
While UAlbany (5-5 America East, 5-7 overall) is currently in fifth place, a sweep against Stony Brook (6-8, 8-12) will guarantee the Great Danes they get to host one of those mini-tournaments during the opening weekend of the league’s postseason. Being able to host that weekend would be a welcome development for the Great Danes after a regular season that saw them not play the league’s bottom-two teams — Binghamton and Maine — in the conference’s unbalanced schedule brought upon by pandemic-related factors.
“Nobody in our league has played as difficult of a schedule as we have played,” said UAlbany head coach Will Brown, whose program is the only one among the league’s top-eight teams not to have played at least one of Binghamton and Maine. “It’s not even close.”
Stony Brook is coming off four consecutive losses, but those defeats all came against UMBC and Vermont. Meanwhile, UAlbany is coming off a win against UMass Lowell, but Brown said this week that the team could be missing as many as three players — including two “heavy-minute guys” — against Stony Brook that he didn’t identify because of injury, while the team is also only expecting limited minutes from usual starters CJ Kelly and Jarvis Doles as they return after missing last weekend’s games because of COVID-19 protocols.
“We’ve got to find a way,” Brown said. “We’ve just got to find a way.”
Siena will be without multiple players this weekend, as a pair of unidentified Saints will miss the weekend’s games because of COVID-19 protocols — and it’s a crucial weekend for head coach Carmen Maciariello’s squad.
Siena (8-2 MAAC, 8-2 overall) enters its games against Niagara (6-8, 7-9) in second place in the MAAC despite boasting the league’s best winning percentage. Siena could leave this weekend in first, second or third place, but the Saints’ situation is further complicated by that the team they are chasing — Monmouth, which entered its current series against Iona at 10-4 in league play — is currently scheduled to play a full 20-game MAAC schedule while Siena is only slated to play 17.
Since total wins are what the MAAC will use to determine seeds for its tournament, Siena really cannot afford to leave this weekend any further behind Monmouth than it already is after its latest pause.
“You’ve got to control what you can,” Maciariello said earlier this week. “That’s been our mindset all year.”
Siena junior Jackson Stormo said the Saints are starting to pay more attention to the standings. Theoretically, though, they could win the rest of their games, finish with the conference’s best winning percentage by a solid margin . . . and still not take the league’s top seed for its tournament in Atlantic City.
“I mean, obviously, it’s something that we look at and follow, but it comes down to just us winning games, and us worrying about ourselves and being as prepared as we can be,” Stormo said.
Niagara, which is also coming off a pause, is 4-2 at home this season. Siena senior Manny Camper said the Saints know the Purple Eagles are certainly capable of pushing them.
“So I think we’ll be more than ready,” Camper said.
Siena won its last game before its most-recent pause, but hadn’t looked much like the version of itself that started 6-0 in the 2-2 stretch that followed. Junior guard Jalen Pickett, though, said the Saints were able to use much of February to get themselves healthy and more familiar with the team’s offensive concepts.
“I think we feel really good,” Pickett said.