LOUDONVILLE — When the top two teams in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference men’s basketball standings face off Friday, it will be the team everyone expected to be on top versus the team that believed in itself.
The latter team, Siena, has had a rough week emotionally, but is still believing in its ability — and a decided home-crowd advantage — to defeat Iona in their 7 p.m. Friday matchup at MVP Arena.
The game will draw many eyes, as it is being telecast on ESPNU and is a “Gold Rush” game in which students and fans are encouraged to attend and wear gold. It’s also a Coaches vs. Cancer game, which takes on special meaning for Siena after the basketball family suffered two losses to cancer: John Baer, the father of graduate student forward Michael Baer, on Sunday, and Evan Franz, a senior at Tamarac who was an honorary team member since 2021, on Monday.
“The biggest key is no emotion,” Siena coach Carmen Maciariello said. “You know, we don’t want to play anything on emotion, we want to be able to fundamentally and systematically execute our game plan with how we want to defend and how we want to score the basketball. If we can do that, and we can kind of limit the noise and the distractions, I think we’ll be in a good place to have a chance to win the game. And if we go out there thinking we can win the game in the first two minutes and, you know, take a bunch of quick shots and not defend, it’s going to be a long night.”
In the MAAC preseason poll, Iona received 10 out of the 11 possible first-place votes. Siena was predicted for sixth place. But it’s the Saints who have a 7-2 league record and are on top by half a game over the Gaels at 6-2.
Siena is coming off a 62-52 loss to Fairfield in which it squandered a halftime lead, but lost starting point guard and leading scorer Javian McCollum (15.8 ppg) to a back injury by halftime. On Tuesday, Maciariello said McCollum is “day-to-day,” but acknowledged it may be difficult to have him ready for Iona.
“We’re waiting on some test results,” Maciariello said. “We’ll see if we can even get him on the practice floor, to be honest with you. I didn’t realize he didn’t come out until about the last four minutes of the Fairfield game to sit at the end of the bench. I didn’t know how much he was struggling to walk. I’m not really worried about that. We have a good group of guys that are healthy and we’ll move on, regardless of who’s playing or not.”
One of the people that has stepped up when McCollum has missed some time this season is freshman Michael Eley, who’s averaging 8.5 points and who will likely play a bigger role if McCollum can’t play Friday.
The Saints also know that center Jackson Stormo, who is averaging 13.7 points, but was held to eight and seven in last week’s games, will be an important player against Iona, and its very talented center Nelly Junior Joseph.
“It’s just about taking the right [shots] and taking them with confidence,” Stormo said.
The defense of Stormo and reserve big-man Eduardo Lane may be even more important, as Junior Joseph averages 15.6 points, 8.7 rebounds and contributes significantly to the Gaels leading the league with 6.2 blocked shots per game.
In addition to Junior Joseph, Iona features an athletic lineup, led by Daniss Jenkins’ 16.3 points and 4.8 assists per game. Walter Clayton contributes 15.6 points per game, and Quinn Slazinski 11.3.
There’s also the Rick Pitino factor, as the Basketball Hall of Famer is in his third season coaching the Gaels.
“At the end of the day, you know, he can’t make any shots, I can’t make any shots anymore, and we’ve got to go out and compete,” Maciariello said.
The game will be a new experience for graduate student guard Andrew Platek, who was injured for last year’s home game against Iona, a 70-64 Saints win.
“MVP is going to be packed and I can’t wait,” Platek said. “How much I personally look into the opportunity of ‘OK, I get to take my shot at Iona this year?’ Well, it’s good to be back regardless. I hated being injured obviously. But coming back and being able to help this team win and do whatever I can to help these guys is all I’m here for — trying to be a leader, trying to be a good grad student, good old guy and help these young guys in these big games.”
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