People like to say that a team like Siena has a big target on its back.
You’ve been picked to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference two years in a row, you did it last year in the regular season and tournament and you’re 12-0 in the MAAC this season.
That’s quite a target. Siena is everybody’s Super Bowl, especially since the Saints have been floating around the 20s in the Ratings Percentage Index for most of the conference season.
The key for the Saints, though, is not how big the target is, but that it’s on their back, because when you’re constantly looking forward, the target is only there for your opponent to consider.
The Saints have been able to get to 12-0 heading into today’s 1 p.m. game at Rider by refusing to stop and bask in the glow of their season.
“The thing that I’ve been impressed with so far — and it’s only two-thirds of the way through the season — is we seem to have had the ability to understand that, and have played accordingly,” Siena head coach Fran McCaffery said. “We haven’t been fat-headed and feel like we can just show up. I think we have a healthy respect for our opponents in this league.”
The Saints (18-5 overall) won’t have any difficulty conjuring respect for today’s opponent, which should be primed for a hard shot at Siena, considering the game will take place in the Broncs’ claustrophobic 1,700-seat Alumni Gym — the Broncs Zoo — and Rider must be still feeling the sting of losing the MAAC championship game last year.
Siena also beat the Broncs at the Times Union Center, 91-81, almost a month ago.
Rider (7-4, 12-9) is also chasing Niagara for second in the conference, while trying to hold off several teams that are right behind them.
The Saints have won eight straight, their longest streak since 1999-2000, and 16 of their last 18, losing road games to Pittsburgh and Kansas.
“You look at the fact that we sit here at 12-0, but everybody remembers the Marist game and the Iona game, and even the Manhattan game on the road, the Loyola game on the road,” McCaffery said. “We haven’t had too many easy wins, but we’ve been able to win them all, so far. We also are intelligent enough, I think, to look at the remainder of the schedule, with six league games left, and four of them are on the road.”
Although McCaffery hasn’t been going much beyond Clarence Jackson, Kyle Downey and Owen Wignot down his bench for the most part, he credits them for bolstering the starters, and sometimes even bailing them out.
Senior co-captain Josh Duell should be available to get back on the floor soon, after spraining his knee in the second half against Kansas on Jan. 6, but it doesn’t look like that will happen today.
“He’s doing some things, like shooting, but he’s still not cutting, sprinting,” McCaffery said. “We haven’t tried to do anything in terms of explosion yet. Every day, he’s getting a little bit better.
“Two weeks ago, I would’ve said without a doubt he would be playing [by now], and he’s not. You wonder, did he get to a certain point, and then he sort of can’t make that last step that he needs. He got a lot better real quick, and then now it doesn’t seem like he can play yet. If not Rider, maybe Monday or Thursday.”
The Saints have two home games next week against Loyola on Monday and Manhattan on Thursday.
Rider is 4-4 in its last eight, and lost to last-place Canisius on Jan. 15.
The Broncs are dangerous, especially since freshman Novar Gadson has proven to be a productive complement to veterans Ryan Thompson and Harris Mansell.
Sophomore Mike Ringgold, a MAAC all-rookie first-teamer in 2007-08, is a bear on the offensive glass, but a liability at the free-throw line, where he’s shooting 28.4 percent.
Gadson, a Philadelphia native, is a leading candidate for rookie of the year, along with Iona point guard Scott Machado.
“He just burst onto the scene with a real solid game,” McCaffery said. “The thing about him is you look at him, at 6-[foot]-7, as a forward, and, sure, he can rebound it, but he’s really a guard, if you study his game. He can handle it, shoot threes, drive the ball. He’s got a lot of fakes, shot fakes, foot fakes, he can go around you. Yeah, he can go inside and finish with a dunk, a tip dunk, so he’s a handful, that guy.”