Finally, a home game for Siena men’s basketball, on Friday against Niagara

Siena's leading scorer Colby Rogers practices free throws on campus on Jan. 19.
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Siena's leading scorer Colby Rogers practices free throws on campus on Jan. 19.

LOUDONVILLE — For just the second time in eight weeks, the Siena men’s basketball team will re-familiarize itself with South Pearl Street on Friday, a few short miles away from campus, but in a different solar system since Dec. 3.

The Saints are 2-3 at MVP Arena this season, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t looking forward to enjoying the inherent advantages of playing there.

They’ll start a four-game stretch at MVP Arena at 7 p.m. Friday against Niagara, Siena’s first home game since a 69-62 win over Fairfield three weeks ago and just the second since the 77-72 overtime loss to Manhattan all the way back on Dec. 3.

It also kicks off a dense calendar, in general, made more crowded by the Jan. 2 Canisius game being rescheduled to next Tuesday because of COVID-19 protocols. Siena will play four games in the next eight days, and five games in the next 10 days.

“We’re ready to get back in there and give the fans some good entertainment, for sure,” Siena guard Nick Hopkins said on Thursday afternoon. “Leading into March and February, we’ve got to bring it, because this is the time.”

“I think it’s the right time to be back home,” Siena head coach Carm Maciariello said. “We really struggled the last two games on the road. I think our defense has been good enough to win games, it’s been the other side of the ball that’s kind of been stagnant. So we’re really working hard to make sure we have some rhythm and chemistry, guys sharing the ball.”

Siena (3-3 MAAC, 6-8 overall) is coming off a 74-57 loss at Iona on Tuesday and a 75-68 loss at Manhattan last Friday.

Only two players on the current Saints roster, Jackson Stormo and Aidan Carpenter, played against Niagara (3-6, 8-10) the last time the teams met, a 68-66 Siena win on Feb. 21, 2021.

The matchup on Friday features the lowest per-game average scoring team in the MAAC, Siena (64.6 points per game), against the team with the second-best defensive scoring average, as the Purple Eagles are holding opponents to 66.1 ppg.

Niagara (36.9%) and Siena (35.0%) are also 1-2, respectively, in 3-point percentage in the conference. The Saints have one of the highest 3-point percentages allowed, at 33.3%.

“If we guard those shot opportunities well and make them feel uncomfortable defensively, then offensively, as long as we share the ball and trust our guys to knock down shots, we’ll be good,” Siena forward Anthony Gaines said.

Siena’s 3-point success has largely been from the hands of Hopkins (26-for-62, 41.9%) and Colby Rogers (37-for-83, 44.6%), who actually is shooting slightly better from 3-point range than he is on total field goals.

Rogers was the only Saint who sustained offense throughout the Iona game, making five of eight 3s and scoring 17 points. Carpenter had 13 points, but was 4-for-17 from the field.

“We had a problem with the [Iona] pressure,” Gaines said. “We need to be more composed offensively, getting into our actions, and being able to run the sets we want would help us.”

“It happens,” Hopkins said. “We’ve just got to get back to the drawing board, execute, focus on ourselves in practice, and we’ve got a good four-game homestretch ahead of us, so we’ve got to make up for that.”

“In my tenure here as head coach, we’re 20-2 when we’ve got four guys in double figures [scoring],” Maciariello said. “For me, that’s the biggest thing, that we run equal-opportunity offense. Guys need to know their reads and need to make sure they’re making plays for others. When we do that, we’re really hard to beat.”

The Saints will get a significantly different defensive look from Niagara from what they saw against Iona, which throws a fullcourt press at everything and everybody.

Maciariello compared the Purple Eagles to Fairfield, “being in the paint and really stacking it up in there and making you take contested perimeter jump shots. They want you to settle for a quicker, contested shot, which we can’t do.”

“Niagara’s a really low-turnover team,” he said. “They’re going to play at a really methodical pace, so we’ve got to make sure that when we get stops we really push the ball when we can. That’ll be a key of emphasis for us.

“It’s a little different defensive identity from Iona to Niagara. Iona switches a lot of things. The key to that is our guys have the mindset and the identity not to be deterred from getting the ball. You have to have the mindset that you’re going to get the ball, and you’re going to get it where you want it. We have to be the aggressor in everything we do.”

Just hearing a crowd rooting in their favor instead of against it should be a boost to the Saints.

Siena annually leads the 11-team MAAC in average home attendance by a wide margin, something Iona head coach Rick Pitino identified as a goal he has to get the Gaels program to the next level.

Granted, MVP Arena can hold a vastly higher number of fans than most of the rest of the conference venues, but Siena is averaging just over 5,000 per game at MVP Arena this season, and the next highest is Iona’s 2,578-seat Hynes Center, at 2,072 per game.

“I want to to get it to where you can’t get a ticket to a game,” Pitino said after the game on Tuesday. “I want it to get it to where fans travel to games. We’ve already changed the facilities. Now we’ve got to change our fan base, to where they travel, sell out every ticket.

“That’s something Siena has over every team in the league. They have an awesome fan base, and we’ve got to get it to that point.”

As of Thursday afternoon, Maciariello said he still didn’t know when freshman point guard Javian McCollum, who didn’t make the Iona trip because he’s behind in classwork, would be available to play.

SCOUTING NIAGARA

The Purple Eagles’ top scorer is 6-foot-3 senior guard Marcus Hammond, who is averaging 17.3 ppg and has pumped his 3-point percentage back up after some dropoff last season.

As a sophomore, he was Niagara’s leading scorer at 14.3 ppg, while hitting 42.5% of his 3-pointers, but dipped to 29.2% last year while still maintaining a high volume of shots from behind the arc.

He had just three points in 38 minutes in the two-point loss to Siena last February.

Games of note during the 2021-22 season for the Purple Eagles so far include a 66-58 victory over UAlbany on Dec. 18 in which the Great Danes trailed 20-5 to start and clawed their way back to a small lead in the second half before running out of gas.

In November, Niagara played a close one, 63-60, in a loss to Xavier (currently ranked No. 21 in The Associated Press national poll), as Hammond scored 25 points; lost 84-74 to then-No. 17 Ohio State; and beat Colgate 70-59 nine days after the Raiders had upset Syracuse 100-85.

On Dec. 12, the Purple Eagles dropped 112 points on Division III Buffalo State and won by 60.

In MAAC play, Niagara lost at Iona 78-55, trailing by six with 9:50 left before the Gaels pulled away, and has lost three of its last four, including the last two, 74-68 in overtime to Saint Peter’s and 70-67 to Rider.

Niagara’s head coach is Greg Paulus, a three-year starter and two-year captain as point guard at Duke from 2005-09. Like Maciariello, Paulus became a head coach for the first time prior to the 2019-20 season.

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