LOUDONVILLE — The losing has been tough. Roman Penn will admit that without hesitation, that he’s far from thrilled with how his freshman season has played out on the court for the Siena College men’s basketball team.
But that Penn’s playing a freshman season at Siena, a Division I program?
He’s pretty thrilled about that.
Out of high school, Penn gambled on himself when nobody else would and took a prep year at Indiana’s Don Bosco Prep Academy following a successful high school career that ended without the Division I scholarship he coveted.
“I didn’t have any [offers],” Penn said. “I didn’t even have Division II.”
Fast-forward to now, and that’s tough to believe. Penn’s arguably been Siena’s most consistent player as a freshman, starting the team’s last 15 games and leading the Saints in minutes played by a healthy margin. His statistical line — 9.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists — don’t jump off the page, but his steady presence has been something the Saints have come to rely on as they try to fight back after their 5-14 start to the season.
“Roman’s been the guy we can always count on,” Siena junior Evan Fisher said ahead of the Saints’ 7 p.m. MAAC game Thursday against Marist at Times Union Center.
For a long while, that’s been the best way to describe Penn, 20, on the basketball court — dependable, reliable, consistent. Josh Belluomini, Penn’s high school coach at Indiana’s Bishop Noll, credited the player’s mother Luana Turner for those traits — “She’s the type where if something was wrong, she’d tell Roman to fix it,” Belluomini said — in Penn, who led his high school team to area championships in each of his three varsity seasons.
“He’s the smartest kid I’ve ever coached. He’s the person [my current and future] players are held up to now and compared to,” Belluomini said. “The only flaw we ever had with the poor kid was we had to yell at him to shoot more. He was always trying to get other people involved and get them their points.”
That pass-first trait and his smallish size — he’s listed at 5-foot-11, 170 pounds — hurt Penn’s stock as a recruit out of high school. He considered heading to a junior college out of high school to try to raise his profile, but didn’t want to lose a year of college eligibility or start a college path of jumping from one place to another.
“I didn’t want to bounce to different places,” said Penn, who lived in Seattle for 10 years before moving to Illinois’ Calumet City. “I wanted to be at one place.”
From the AD of Don Bosco, where Roman Penn has been playing this year: “All the intangibles you look for, he’s got them.”— Michael Kelly (@ByMichaelKelly) January 13, 2017
So he headed off to Don Bosco, a school established in 2013. The move was a calculated risk for Penn, a last-chance attempt to find a Division I program willing to take an undersized guard.
“I was so stressed. You’re gambling on yourself,” Penn said. “That was probably the longest six months of my life because you never know what will happen. You have one year to get your scholarship. . . . Every game that went by, you know that’s one less opportunity.”
But Siena found Penn early in his prep year. Assistant coach Jordan Watson led the recruitment of Penn, who quickly started to find interested suitors — but not offers.
“Nobody wanted to take a chance,” Penn said.
The Saints did as the calendar turned to 2017 without a logical successor lined up behind then-senior Marquis Wright. Siena head coach Jimmy Patsos saw Penn play his typical pass-first game — “I think I took four shots the game Patsos saw me,” Penn said — and offered him a scholarship.
Word spread fast about that, and several other offers soon arrived for Penn.
“Nah,” Penn told those schools, “I’m good.”
Penn quickly committed to Siena and was on the Saints’ campus not long after. He enrolled for last year’s spring semester and started practicing with the team. Fisher credited Penn’s energy at practices and work on the scout team as reasons why the 2016-17 Saints turned their season around and made the MAAC championship game.
“I was very impressed with him. That’s what I remember. He jumped right into practicing with us and I know that’s not easy for someone to do,” Fisher said. “He’s really just gotten better since.”
A consistent piece of Penn’s freshman season has been an ability to respond. He struggled toward the end of the preseason and didn’t score in the Saints’ first two games, but worked his way into the starting lineup by the team’s fifth game. He’s been better after halftime than before it in a number of games. To this point, he’s the lone Siena player to win a MAAC Rookie of the Week award.
Now, the next challenge for Penn is to take on Marist junior Brian Parker, a player who is dealing with a right ankle injury but largely had his way against Penn when the Red Foxes beat the Saints to start conference play.
“Now,” Patsos said, “he has a chance to play him [again].”
That’s a chance Penn is looking forward to in the first game of his second calendar year at Siena. His introduction to MAAC play last year with the Saints was their Jan. 17 game against Rider that was marred by a late-game scuffle — and remembered for Patsos’ pantomimed handshakes — and Penn’s seen a lot since that point, from last season’s run to the championship game to this season’s rough first half culminating in Nico Clareth, one of the team’s co-captains, leaving the program.
“But I feel like with the experiences we’ve had,” Penn said, “we’ve done a good job of staying together.”
That’s why Penn said he’d make the decision to head to Siena again in a heartbeat. It’s been a “long year,” but he’s encouraged with the team’s direction despite the Saints’ 1-5 start in MAAC play. There is still optimism among the youthful Saints for this season, and Penn’s a large reason for that.
“And I love the team that we are right now,” Penn said.