Defensive leader Billups ‘the glue’ for first-place Siena men’s basketball

Siena’s Jared Billups during a MAAC college basketball game at MVP Arena in Albany on Friday, January 20, 2023.

Siena’s Jared Billups during a MAAC college basketball game at MVP Arena in Albany on Friday, January 20, 2023.

LOUDONVILLE — It’s “the 3s, and the dunks and the crazy passes,” that find their way to becoming highlights.

But what so often highlights Jared Billups’ impact for the Siena men’s basketball program is how he takes those moments away from opposing players, a habit that’s helped the sophomore wing player earn a “Big-Time Billups” nickname from head coach Carmen Maciariello and promotion from various Saints that he should be a front-runner for MAAC Defensive Player of the Year.

“No one,” Siena graduate student Andrew Platek said, “wants to see Jared Billups on the other team.”

That’s the case for Manhattan Jaspers for Friday’s 7 p.m. MAAC game at Draddy Gymnasium in Riverdale, and it was equally the deal for Billups’ teammates as the first-place Saints prepared in their on-campus practice gym to go after their third consecutive win. As tough as Billups is on the top offensive players for opponents, the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Maryland native has also developed a reputation as a Saint who doesn’t ever take it easy.  

“It’s not fun,” Platek said Tuesday of facing Billups during practices.

“He definitely keeps me working,” Siena freshman Michael Eley said earlier this season. “It’s a great matchup. I love it because it gets us better when we go at it.”

That’s the way Platek viewed how Billups helped him at the start of this season. Coming off an abbreviated 2021-22 season that ended early due to a torn left Achilles tendon, going up against Billups during workouts helped Platek regain the timing needed to be a double-digit scorer for the Saints.

“That helped me improve my shot selection, where I could get [shots] off, because I knew if I could do it against him, I could do it against pretty much anybody,” said Platek, the former Guilderland High School standout who played four seasons at North Carolina before transferring to Siena.

Along with fellow graduate student Jackson Stormo and sophomore Javian McCollum, Platek is one of three Saints ahead of Billups on the team’s per-game scoring list. Billups raised his scoring average to 8.1 after nearly doubling his career-high with 24 points in Siena’s win this past Sunday against Marist, but Billips has contributed to winning this season regardless of how many points he’s scored in a given game. Heading into Friday’s road game for Siena (9-2 MAAC, 15-7 overall), the leading scorer this season for Manhattan (5-6, 7-13) is Ant Nelson — and that means Billups will likely defend the 6-foot-4 guard for the vast majority of the contest since the sophomore leads his club in minutes played and spends so much of those minutes chasing after the opposing team’s top perimeter threat each game.

Sometimes, that literally means chasing that player around, something that Billups’ quick feet, long arms, strength and attitude allow him to do.

“Sticking to a guy through six different screens in a possession and making them take a fall-away, contested 2 — like, every time — is incredible,” Platek said.

It’s easy to embrace getting to be a shot-taker for a club. Billups — who had offseason wrist surgery — averages fewer than seven of those per game, and has only made 34.6% of his field-goal attempts and 17.9% from 3-point territory this season. Billups, though, takes “a lot” of pride in how he’s able to lift the Saints with his defensive work.

“Especially because I know that’s what our team needs. I feel like if I didn’t do my job, the whole thing wouldn’t come together,” Billups said.

Other Saints feel that way, too.

“He works so hard, and Jared’s the type of player where the box score doesn’t always show his full impact on the game,” said Stormo, who leads the Saints this season in overall plus-minus, a statistic Billups ranks fifth in for Siena. “I’ve got so much confidence in that man.” 

There are numbers to back up that type of confidence — and some of them arrive in interesting ways. 

For instance, this season, Siena has allowed 0.62 points per minute when Billups is on the floor and 0.58 when he’s off of it. At first glance, it’s easy to look at those near-identical numbers and conclude that Siena — which ranks as the MAAC’s most-efficient defense in conference play — is just as good defensively with Billups as it is without him, if not a touch better.

That line of thinking, though, takes a major hit when it’s considered how Billups’ minutes nearly always match up with an opponent’s top offensive players and lineups on the floor, too. In essence, Billups plays nearly all of the toughest defensive minutes for the Saints — and they come out of them roughly the same in terms of points allowed as they do from the minutes when opponents are resting their top scorers and Maciariello is doing the same with his top defender.

“It’s lucky to have him on your team,” Platek said of Billups.

That good fortune showed a week ago when Siena dominated Iona during a first-place showdown at MVP Arena. In that contest, Billups scored seven points and grabbed seven rebounds, but more important was the way he rotated between guarding Walter Clayton Jr. and Daniss Jenkins, a high-scoring backcourt capable of hurting opponents in a variety of ways. On a night that saw the Saints outscore Iona by 29 points in Billups’ 29 minutes he played and get outscored by 12 points in the 11 minutes he sat, Billups kept both Gaels from getting into a rhythm as they shot as combined 6 of 21 and produced less than half their usual scoring output.

It takes physical skills and determination to be a great defender, but Maciariello said one of the ways Billups set himself apart is the way he “very actively learn[s] each scout” ahead of tip-off — and, then, is able to take guidance during the quick breathers he gets on the Siena sideline to adjust as opposing offenses try to find ways around him.

Billups has adjusted throughout the season, too. With McCollum — whose status for Friday’s game is uncertain — missing stretches of time, Billups has taken on more ball-handling responsibilities for the Saints. An active rebounder as a freshman, Billups is Siena’s top rebounder this season at 6.7 per game. He averages nearly one block and one steal per game, too.

“He’s the glue,” Platek said of Billups, “that makes this thing go.”

Categories: College Sports, Siena College, Sports

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