Sometimes, you hear coaches say that no one is a freshman at this time of year.
It’s impossible to fully prepare freshmen for the NCAA tournament, though, no matter how much experience they gained during the regular season. It’s just a different animal.
So Siena’s two freshmen who have played significant minutes this season, Kyle Downey and Owen Wignot, will be stepping into new territory when the Saints play Ohio State in the late game at the University of Dayton Arena in Ohio Friday night.
Downey stepped right in at the beginning of the season and looked like a veteran, whereas it took until the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament for the 6-foot-5 Wignot to find his comfort zone.
Once he did, though, he showed the athletic ability and efficiency that made the Dallas, Pa., native a state bronze medalist in the high jump and triple jump, and a player that head coach Fran McCaffery has raved about all season.
The MAAC tournament was a big turning point for Wignot, who has a tendency to hang his head at the first slip-up, but looked like a confident player and was highly productive in the minutes he was out there. The timing of Wignot’s breakthrough couldn’t have been better for Siena, which will need all the depth it can get against the big, muscular Buckeyes.
“The older guys will help them,” McCaffery said on Monday. “I don’t know if you can prepare yourself for what they’re walking into. They got a taste of it yesterday [Selection Sunday]. You want them to enjoy it, but understand that we need both of them on Friday night. They’re going to play. And they’ve both been phenomenal all year long, they really haven’t rattled much.”
“Kyle, you don’t have to say too much to him. He never shows emotion,” senior co-captain Kenny Hasbrouck said. “I don’t think he’s scared of anybody or anything. Owen, you probably have to settle him down. He’ll probably be real hyped, real amped. But he’s a great player. I think he’ll find confidence within the game, as long as he keeps playing the way he has been playing.”
Downey has been a solid backup who is best known for his heroics filling in when Hasbrouck fouled out of the 91-85 overtime win at Marist on Jan. 15.
Wignot has been slower to carve his niche, but appears to have done so after the MAAC tournament, in which he played 42 minutes in three games, made all six of his shots, including three three-pointers and had an influential stretch of six minutes at the end of the first half of the championship game as Siena and Niagara played to a 33-33 tie.
His highlight came with 2:22 left, when Hasbrouck missed a short runner in the paint.
Wignot somehow snuck in along the baseline, found a small opening and tipped in the rebound off the glass before the crowd in front of the basket could get a hand on it. That gave Siena a 31-25 lead and was Wignot’s fourth rebound in less than four minutes.
“Everyone kind of swarmed toward the basket,” Wignot said. “I really thought he was going to make it, so I just jumped up, anyway, and it just rolled out and I was right there. No one really blocked me out, so I went after it.”
“I think you saw it [improvement] in the conference tournament,” McCaffery said. “He didn’t miss a shot, which is almost unheard of. And you’ve heard me say it, he’s really, really talented. It’s just been something that I’ve tried to do and his teammates have tried to do all year long, is to get him to believe in himself. He’s such a conscientious person and wants to contribute and be a good teammate. It’s OK to have a little reckless abandon. We don’t want ever to be selfish, but it’s OK to go get yours sometimes, when you’re that talented.”
Wignot had his single-game high in scoring with 10 points in the quarterfinals against Fairfield, making both of his threes.
He said he’s always been a perfectionist, and it’s a hard habit to break, but he’s working on it.
“I always kind of did that when I was little, the sore loser kind of thing and always trying to be perfect and stuff,” he said. “With coach, I’ve been trying to work on it. I think this past couple games really helped.”
“He was getting down on himself, and no one was getting down on him,” McCaffery said. “And we’ve talked very openly about that. I’ve talked to his dad about it, and his dad said he’s always been like that. He’s worked with him on it. He’s an incredibly conscientious person. He wants to do everything right, and this game is difficult, and you’re going to make mistakes. He is so talented that if you have him on the floor, he’s always going to have more positive things than negative things happen, and that’s what I tried to get him to understand.
“He’s gotten better,” Hasbrouck said. “We’ve stopped accepting that he puts his head down. We keep telling him to keep his head up. We just let him know, You have to listen. You’re doing anything wrong. You messed up once, and it happens. Nobody’s perfect.”
Wignot, whose track and field personal records include a 6-foot-10 high jump, 45-2 in the triple jump and 22-3 in the long jump, comes from a diversely talented athletic family.
His father, Tom, played pro soccer in the 1970’s, his uncle, Michael Guman, played football for Penn State and the Los Angeles Rams from 1980-89 and his mother, Terri, played basketball at Lehigh.
Downey can make the same claim, as his brother, Kevin, was a three-time all-MAAC basketball player at Canisius, and his sister, and his sister, Christa, was a three-time All-American volleyball player at Nazareth College.
While their teammates all have NCAA tournament experience, Downey and Wignot believe they’ve done what they can to get ready for their first appearance there.
“You really don’t know what to expect,” Downey said. “I’ve heard the other guys talking about last year and how fun it is, the whole atmosphere and all the media, the shootarounds, the practices. I think we’ll have a lot of fans there, too, so it should be a decent showing.
“There won’t be as many students there, so it might be more relaxed, but it’ll still be more intense because of the circumstances we’re playing under.”
Downey didn’t play in the MAAC championship game, a direct result of Hasbrouck playing 37 minutes, and the Ohio State game could go that way, too, unless Hasbrouck gets in foul trouble in the first half.
Then, the 6-2 Downey, who was the leading scorer and rebounder at Fairport High School in Rochester as a senior, said he’ll be ready to do whatever the Saints need.
“It’s just different,” he said, of never knowing how many minutes he’ll get. “It’s not really hard to get used to. I think I’ve handled it pretty well. I’m not really here for me, I’m here for the team, so whatever they expect me to do, whatever they call me to do, I try to do my best.”