Siena men’s basketball heads into pivotal offseason following disappointing finish to 2022-23 season

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Siena College men’s basketball head coach Carmen Maciariello speaks with media during a summer practice at Siena College in Loudonville on Thursday, June 23, 2022.

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ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — No doubt, it will be an interesting offseason for the Siena men’s basketball program.

A pivotal one, for sure.

And, for all intents and purposes, it began with the way head coach Carmen Maciariello closed out his final press conference of the 2022-23 season, his fourth leading his alma mater’s program. In response to a question regarding how Maciariello will “evaluate” the conclusion to the Saints’ season, which ended Thursday night in the MAAC quarterfinals after a sixth consecutive defeat, the coach’s long answer checked in at a second over three minutes. It offered a variety of clues, hints and details as to how such a promising season could’ve ended the way it did, and set the tone for how the Saints will try to build themselves into a 2023-24 contender.

“I don’t think there’s anything crazy to evaluate,” Maciariello said early in his answer.

Partially, that was because so many of those season-ending losses weren’t a mystery. Besides a blowout loss at Iona, Siena’s season-ending losing streak included four defeats by a single-possession margin, and Thursday’s 71-65 defeat against Niagara at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall saw the Saints trail by a point before a back-breaking Purple Eagles 3-pointer with a dozen seconds to go. The Saints had second-half leads in nearly all of those games, but were out-executed down the stretch as their opponents “made more winning plays.”

The “why” for that? The head coach offered his perspective, and it seemed to go back to a point he made earlier in his end-of-season press conference, that the Saints didn’t respond the way they needed after earning “targets on [their] back” with the way they outdid expectations in the season’s first months.

It was no secret that Siena had a lighter practice schedule during the second half of its season, a reality that came about due to a variety of circumstances related to the Saints’ collective health stemming from the rigors of a long season. That inability to compete often on the practice floor hurt the Saints, Maciariello said, but there was more to it than that. Siena’s season closed with only 10 available-to-play scholarship players, and Maciariello said the day-to-day focus wasn’t where it needed to be for the program he’s led to a 64-44 mark during his tenure.

“I think it’s having enough bodies where guys understand they have to give it up every single day — and it’s not just when they feel like it,” Maciariello said. “It’s not just ‘Hey, every third day is a hard [one].’ . . . Our mindset has to be we are going to hunt every single day, whether it’s the preseason, the offseason, non-conference, conference — and, if we have to, make sure we’re getting the right guys in here.

“I know Michael [Eley], and Killian [Gribben], and Javian [McCollum] and Jared [Billups], I know those four guys — and the two guys [Michael Ojo and Bralyn Smith] we signed — are hungry and driven, and tough and they want to play basketball,” continued Maciarello, listing out a pair apiece of sophomores, freshmen and signed recruits. “Nothing’s keeping them from getting in the gym. Nothing’s keeping them from wanting to be great. We want to be great. We don’t want to just be average. We never want to go through a six-game losing streak. That’s the first one of my career. That won’t happen again. These guys don’t want it to happen again. But, to evaluate anything, I think it comes down to toughness. I don’t think mentally we were tough. I thought we loved each other. I thought we cared for each other.”

The Saints, of course, wanted to be great in 2022-23, and Maciariello said the program’s “heart goes out to those guys,” the team’s veterans such as Michael Baer, Andrew Platek and Jackson Stormo, who gave so much only to see their Siena careers end with such a tough closing stretch. For a few months, the Saints looked like they could be a great team — but they couldn’t sustain that success.

Figuring out how to fix that is Maciariello’s charge this offseason. Siena will have a number of open scholarships available to it this offseason. As much as Xs and Os are a college coach’s responsibility, so, too, is stocking a program with the players it needs. Siena’s head coach said he knows he needs to find more players for the 2023-24 Saints like the youngsters he mentioned.

“I know those guys are hungry, so I need more hungry guys. I think I had some hungry guys, but, then, I think, as the season goes on, you can’t get tired of competing,” Maciariello said. “You can’t get tired of trying to do what you can, no matter what, to win games — and, if that’s just being a dog in practice and guarding for two hours, and knowing you’re not going to play. I need that guy. I think that’s what it’s about. So I don’t think it has anything to do with strategy or coaching. I think it has to do with just guys wanting it more.”

There are pieces of Maciariello’s season-ending statement that will rub some the wrong way. It was, as Maciariello saw it, hard truths that didn’t come with any sugar-coating on them. As Maciariello rolled through his answer, though, Eley was to his right and McCollum to his left. Neither player flinched at the critique. Instead, both players nodded their heads in agreement as their coach listed off what he viewed as the issues that came to derail a season that started 15-7 through January and closed with a 2-8 stretch in February and March. Before Maciariello’s season-closing statement, McCollum had made a similar point.

“This team, we’ve got heart, but we’ve seen the results,” McCollum said. “All I can say is, ‘Get in the gym in the offseason. Get better now, guys.’ Now our freshmen know what it takes to get on this stage, and actually get a win and try to go to the [NCAA] tournament. So I think guys will be more serious in the gym, and just get after it.”

That 17-15 mark provided the Saints their fifth winning season in a row. In each of those seasons, Siena finished no worse than tied for third in the MAAC’s regular-season standings.

Siena won at least a share of the MAAC’s regular-season title in each of Maciariello’s first two seasons. The Saints finished in third place in 2021-22 before tying for that position in 2022-23. Big picture, those are solid results for a program in a league known for its parity, but the trend doesn’t sit well with the coach or the Saints’ passionate fan base. Men’s basketball is Siena’s flagship athletic program, and — discounting a conference championship accrued in 2020 when Siena was the top seed remaining when pandemic-related concerns shut down the sport — the Saints haven’t danced into March Madness since 2010.

So, again, Siena’s offseason will be dedicated to ending that drought. This one will be a particularly interesting — and tricky — one. The Saints have arguably the best potential returning core in the MAAC, but that status is akin to a double-edged sword in today’s college basketball landscape. The NCAA transfer portal gives and takes, and the Saints’ easiest path toward being a MAAC contender next season is making sure their young stars remain their players.

Often visibly on social media, Siena fans fretted throughout the season regarding if McCollum could depart, and it’s certainly possible Siena’s leading scorer — or ace defender Billups, or top rookie Eley — could do just that as the sport seemingly moves closer to including a true free agency with each passing offseason.

For his part, McCollum sounded after the team’s finale like a player interested in what’s ahead for the Saints — and Siena, obviously, wants that future to include its talented lead guard from Florida. Steps have been taken, too, for the Saints to take their best shot at retaining their top players, most vividly with the formation of Saints March On, Siena’s school-endorsed NIL collective that launched in January with an initial goal to raise $100,000 . . . and prominently includes an image of Billups and McCollum on its website’s home page next to a description that reads, in part, that “[g]iving to Saints March On is an easy way to compensate student-athletes without jeopardizing the student-athlete’s eligibility.”

Not counting the program’s vacated results from the 2017-18 season, Siena ended its latest campaign with its longest single-season losing streak since it lost 11 games in a row during the 2012-13 season. That campaign ended at 8-24, though, and never held the promise of Siena’s just-completed season, which included multiple high-major wins, a number of rivalry wins and a 6-0 start in MAAC play.

But the 2022-23 season ended without a single win in the MAAC tournament. MAAC basketball is built around asking teams to be able to win three games in March, and Siena’s now gone three conference postseasons without any victories.

The months ahead will be about preparing to change that.

“We look forward to continuing to get better and grow, and making a run next season,” Maciariello said. “These guys know how hard they have to work. Everything matters, and I think they learned that lesson.”

Categories: College Sports, Siena College, Sports

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