Chris De La Rosa is getting more comfortable with the college game just in time for the Siena Saints.
Siena will face a pressing team at 7 tonight when they play at Loyola, and the freshman backup point guard could find himself in an important role.
Head coach Fran McCaffery has performed a balancing act this season between winning games and finding opportunities for his four freshmen to get playing time.
More often, he’s had to lean on the side of doing what’s necessary to win, but his freshmen have been playing more. De La Rosa is coming off his best game of the season, with 10 points, five assists and three steals in a blowout win over Canisius on Monday.
Siena, which committed a remarkably low four turnovers against the Golden Griffins, will need to emphasize good ballhandling against the resurgent Greyhounds, who beat the Saints twice last year and made it to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament semifinals, a year removed from their first winning season in over a decade.
In most games, De La Rosa has simply replaced Ronald Moore for a few minutes so the starter, who is averaging the most minutes on the team, could get a brief rest.
In recent games, McCaffery has experiemented with putting them both on the floor at the same time, using De La Rosa at the off guard so he can get into a comfortable rhythm while Moore runs the show, then sitting Moore and handing the offense over to De La Rosa.
“They’ve been very good together, actually,” McCaffery said. “It helps a freshman point guard to settle down when he can get some minutes without all the pressure of handling the ball and getting us into our offense and dealing with the press.”
The first-place Saints, 7-1 in the MAAC and 12-6 overall, will surely see the press tonight.The Greyhounds are 9-10 overall, but 5-3 in the MAAC after experiencing a difficult nonconference schedule, similar to Siena’s, that included road losses to Kansas, Illinois, Seton Hall and Dayton.
They are healthy again after some early-season injuries and have won three of their last four, including an 83-71 win over second-place Marist.
“You look at their record, and that’s the reason for the record they have,” McCaffery said. “They don’t back down from everybody. Obviously, the philosophy is you get in the league, and those games are going to help you.”
Early in the season, De La Rosa was looking over his shoulder whenever he made a mistake, knowing there was a good chance he would come out of the game.
Now, he’s starting to play with more confidence. McCaffery foresees a time when having Moore, a sophomore, and De La Rosa out there together will be a valuable countermeasure to opponents’ pressing defense.
“Most freshmen think that way, and I felt that way, but coach spoke to me and told me to just go out there and play, feel free,” he said. “The whole team has so much confidence in each other. We feel like we can go out there and play 10 deep, and everybody out there has the ability to play with anybody.”
“Those two guys will be a lethal combination when we see forecourt pressure, which we’re going to see a lot of the rest of the season,” McCaffery said. “So it’s nice to have two point guards who, fortunately, both can shoot. If you have two pass-first point guards who can’t shoot, that’s a whole other story. But they can break defenses down, steal the ball, make a three.”
The Saints expect to walk into a raucous setting at Reitz Arena, where head coach Jimmy Patsos, known for his sideline antics, has infused the program with newfound enthusiasm in threee season.
The Greyhounds were one of the worst teams in the league not long ago, but almost received as many points as Siena for first place in the MAAC preseason poll.
“It’s supposed to be sold out,” McCaffery said. “Jimmy has done a fabulous job of energizing that building. He goes dorm to dorm, gets those kids to come over, buys them pizzas and gets the crowd excited, the way he coaches and the way his team plays. They’re a fun team to watch.
“Sophisticated fans and sophisticated media people will sense when it’s a fake, when it’s a show. With him, it’s not a show. He sweats right through his suit. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Gerald Brown leads the Greyhounds in scoring at 18.4 points a game.
Loyola corralled all of the conference weekly awards last week, as senior forward Michael Tuck won the player of the week and freshman Brian Rudolph won rookie of the week. Tuck had 22 points and 16 rebounds in a win over Saint Peter’s.
“They’re a pressure defensive team, aggressive offensively with a go-to player,” McCaffery said. “They’ve got a couple of good three-point shooters. They have some size, Tuck and [Omari] Isreal are both seniors and very effective players. I mean, they’ve got a real good team.”