At times this season, it frustrated Siena men’s basketball head coach Carmen Maciariello how his club, the most-talented team in the MAAC, could allow opponents to linger and play alongside it.
“That grit and toughness, we have it,” Maciariello said late in February. “I just don’t know if guys want to bring it out all the time. I mean, that takes effort. That takes intensity.”
Finding that focus, keeping that attention, won’t be an issue Wednesday night in the MAAC tournament quarterfinals at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
At the very least, it’s impossible to see how that could be the case.
For the first time this season, top-seeded Siena will play Iona, the team coached by Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member Rick Pitino and the program that’s long been the Saints’ tormentor in the MAAC tournament — and while Wednesday’s 5 p.m. matchup is a quarterfinal, Iona is no normal No. 9 seed. Due to differences in total games played among its teams because of pandemic-related disruptions, the MAAC used total league wins, not winning percentage, to seed its conference tournament, so Siena vs. Iona pits the league’s top team by winning percentage against a club that tied for second — with Monmouth — in that category.
Speaking Monday, prior to knowing which opponent his team would face in Atlantic City, Maciariello said his team is “peaking at the right time” and that he expects to see an effort that demonstrates that in the quarterfinal.
“I think we’ll be ready and locked in. If we’re not, we’ll be going home,” Maciariello said. “I think they guys still want to play. It’s that simple.”
In advancing to play Siena (No. 1 seed, 12-4 overall), Iona (No. 9, 9-5) looked in its second half Tuesday against Quinnipiac like a squad that will demand the Saints play one of their best games of the season. After taking a 25-20 lead into halftime in their first game since Feb. 20, Iona put together a 47-28 second half as the Gaels stormed into the quarterfinals off a 72-48 victory.
Senior Isaiah Ross led Iona in that win with 15 points — and paused for a few seconds before answering a post-game question about taking on Siena.
“You know, we’re looking forward to the game,” Ross said. “Can’t wait to play them.”
It was a short-and-sweet answer from a member of an Iona program that has never lost to Siena in the MAAC tournament. All-time, Iona is 10-0 against Siena in the MAAC tournament, while Siena is 0-5 against Pitino-coached teams.
In recent years, Siena had its MAAC tournament stay ended by Iona in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019. Meanwhile, Siena’s 2009 season ended when Pitino’s Louisville club outlasted the Saints with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line.
Pitino, out of college coaching for a few years after his tenure at Louisville ended when he was fired amid a program scandal, took over at Iona last March. With the program coming off a 12-17 season, Pitino quickly restocked the Gaels with talent, but the team only played 13 regular-season games because of pandemic-related pauses.
“The one thing about our ball club, we only have three or four returning players,” Pitino said. “We had to bring in 12, 13 new players. Siena’s very experienced. They all know their system. We’re still learning our system, and we know we’re going to have to play a great game to beat them.”
That characterization of Siena, though, isn’t entirely accurate. While the team primarily relies on players with college basketball experience accumulated prior to this season, Siena only has four scholarship players on its roster this season that returned from last season’s team, which ended the 2019-20 campaign on a 10-game winning streak when the in-progress MAAC tournament was halted and the sport shut down amid the pandemic.
But Siena has established MAAC stars in senior Manny Camper and junior Jalen Pickett, giving the Saints the feel of a veteran-laden squad looking more to build off last season than build something new this year. Maciariello, though, said he sees what this season’s team did during the regular season as more impressive than what last season’s club did, since Siena — picked to finish in sixth place before the 2019-20 season — entered this season as the preseason MAAC favorite and had to deal with four separate pandemic-related pauses along the way to earning a share of this year’s regular-season crown along with Monmouth. The expectations that greeted this season’s team came with “noise and distractions,” but the Saints navigated that.
“I think we’re in a good spot. All the stuff that happened, we overcame and we still won the league,” Maciariello said. “No one really wants to talk about that. Everyone wants to talk about this, that — [and] that’s probably tougher to do, right? It’s easier when you’re not picked to win the league and you win the league. We were picked to win the league, and we still won the league with a bunch of adversity that happened.”
But Siena never quite figured out how to stay fully engaged throughout every minute of every game during the regular season. Siena’s regular season closed with a one-point loss to Canisius, a game that ended with an 8-0 Canisius run against Siena team that “just stopped defending . . . just stopped executing” in the final minutes of what was a mostly meaningless game for the Saints who already had the top seed locked up.
“You can’t do that down here,” Maciariello said, “and I think they’ve learned that.”
Maciariello said Monday the Saints were allowed to have two coaches in attendance at Tuesday night’s game between Iona and Quinnipiac. The Siena coaching staff didn’t plan to mandate the team watch the game back at its hotel, but Pickett said that’s what would occur with the Saints each in their respective hotel rooms.
“We’re all going to be texting throughout [the game] and talking about different things we see,” Pickett said.
While Siena could make some last-minute adjustments based on how Tuesday’s game played out, Maciariello said the team’s scouting reports were completed this past weekend.
After a practice Sunday at UHY Center on Siena’s campus, Maciariello said the Saints had 90-minute practices on Monday and Tuesday in Atlantic City. The Saints are also allowed a 60-minute shootaround on game day.
In a text message, Maciariello said Tuesday that guards Aidan Carpenter (ankle) and Nick Hopkins (knee) remain “day to day” with their respective injuries.
Carpenter has not played in Siena’s last three games, while Hopkins missed the team’s final five games of the regular season.
On Monday, Maciariello said both players had increased their activity level in recent days. Carpenter appears to be the more likely player to be available for Siena’s quarterfinal game.
Graduate student Harrison Curry (COVID-19 protocols) is expected to miss all of the MAAC tournament. With Carpenter, Curry and Hopkins out in recent weeks, Siena has played its last three games with only seven scholarship players available.
For the third consecutive season, Pickett was named an All-MAAC first-team selection.
With that honor, which was announced Monday, Pickett joined Marcus Faison as the only Siena players ever to earn three career All-MAAC first-team selections.
For the second consecutive season, Camper joined Pickett on the first team. Prior to Camper and Pickett each making the first team last season, Siena hadn’t had multiple players make the league’s top team since the 2009-10 season when three Saints — Alex Franklin, Ronald Moore and Ryan Rossiter — made the first team during head coach Fran McCaffery’s final season at Siena.
In each of McCaffery’s final three seasons, that all ended with NCAA tournament appearances, multiple Saints made the All-MAAC first team.
This season’s major individual awards will be announced Wednesday. Camper is considered a favorite for the MAAC Player of the Year award, which Pickett won last season.
MORE RECOGNITION FOR MACIARIELLO
A day after Maciariello was named a finalist for the Skip Prosser Man of the Year Award, Maciariello was selected Tuesday as one of 25 finalists for the Hugh Durham Award, which honors the top Division I mid-major coach.
Siena won a share of the regular-season MAAC crown this season, along with Monmouth. Last season, Siena outright won the MAAC’s regular-season championship in Maciariello’s first season as head coach.
According to Siena’s athletic department, Maciariello’s 32-14 start to his tenure matches Paul Hewitt for the best 46-game coaching start in program history.