ALBANY — It was easy to get down with the way things started, easy for freshmen Roman Penn to let his chin drop into his chest.
The Siena College men’s basketball freshman guard had been labeled an immediate starter for this season, pretty much since his arrival last winter to start practicing with the Saints. For the most part, that label stuck with Penn throughout the Saints’ offseason and preseason workouts.
Then, he struggled — a lot — in the Saints’ exhibition loss against Le Moyne. From there, he lost his starting gig and responded with back-to-back scoreless efforts to start his official college career.
“That was eye-opening,” Penn said Friday before the Saints practiced at Times Union Center in advance of Saturday’s 2 p.m. home game against Hofstra.
And what did he see?
“That they’re going to put the best five on the court,” Penn said.
For those first two games, that often didn’t include Penn. Besides shooting 0 of 4 in those games, he only managed one assist — and two turnovers — in 24 total minutes.
“First two games, I expected big things from myself right away and I wasn’t playing up to my potential or helping the team,” Penn said. “Those first two games, I was thinking too much instead of playing.”
He added: “I was kind of in my shell. I was trying to lead, but I wasn’t saying much.”
That wasn’t the case Friday. Penn was vocal during the Saints’ practice. He’s played better the last two games after looking more for his own shot, and he appears likely to start Saturday when the 0-4 Saints take on the 3-2 Pride. At Friday’s practice — which didn’t include Siena head coach Jimmy Patsos, who missed the day’s workout to attend the wake of a family friend — Penn was a member of the first lineup Siena used during the session, a group which included fellow freshmen Prince Oduro and Christian Bentley, plus junior Nico Clareth and sophomore Ahsante Shivers.
First Siena grouping to work together as a 5 today: Bentley, Clareth, Penn, Oduro, Shivers https://t.co/3GM7ZLRw65— Michael Kelly (@ByMichaelKelly) November 24, 2017
Siena assistant coach Jordan Watson said it’s “probably accurate” that multiple Siena freshmen start Saturday. That’s partially in response to the team’s 0-4 start and a listless effort in its last loss — a 115-92 pounding against Bucknell — but also because getting this season’s freshmen minutes is not just about getting them ready for future season.
“The best thing for the young guys to do to learn is to play. Getting them out there and getting them minutes is the best thing we can do for them — and we’re going to rely on freshmen this year,” Watson said. “If we’re going to be contending in the MAAC, I think we’re going to have to play a lot of freshmen a lot of minutes.”
Penn’s responded to his increased opportunity in the Saints’ last two games. He made 8 of 16 shots and played 59 minutes during Siena’s losses against Lehigh and Bucknell
“I was waiting for the perfect shot [in the season’s first two games] instead of shooting shots I know I can hit. They might not be as open as you want, but it’s still a high-percentage shot for me,” Penn said. “I know when I’m aggressive, good things turn out for the team.”
Each of Siena’s active freshmen are still finding their way at this point. Oduro — still dealing with “nagging pain” associated with plantar fasciitis in his right foot — hasn’t put together back-to-back solid games. Bentley has shown flashes of good play, but hasn’t played more than 16 minutes in a game. Jordan Horn has struggled with his shot.
Penn? There are likely more growing pains ahead of him, but he’s cleared his first hurdle.
“It’s a process, but Roman’s a great kid,” Watson said. “He’s working hard — he always plays hard — so he’ll continue to get better.”
Regardless of if Penn starts Saturday, he’s likely to spend the bulk of his minutes matched up with former Siena guard Kenny Wormley, who has started Hofstra’s last three games. Wormley, a junior, transferred from Siena after a freshman season in which he started 28 games.
Penn, though, isn’t concerned with any 1-on-1 matchups. Not at this point in his career, when he knows what’s most important for him is to become the reliable threat the Saints expected him to be at season’s start.
“And you need to be the person your team needs you to be,” Penn said. “I’ve learned that in these four games.”