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Siena's challenge: Rebuilding its men's basketball program

Siena's challenge: Rebuilding its men's basketball program

Less than a decade after its program reached its greatest heights, Siena is searching for another coach
Siena's challenge: Rebuilding its men's basketball program
John D'Argenio speaks to media members Friday at Siena College.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

LOUDONVILLE — Facing media members Friday an hour after the school announced it had accepted Jimmy Patsos’ resignation, Siena athletic director John D’Argenio opened with prepared remarks that covered the successful history of the school’s men’s basketball program.

From the program’s humble beginnings, to its upset of Stanford in the 1989 NCAA tournament, to how Siena fans flooded into Madison Square Garden for the 1994 NIT semifinals.

“And I know everybody remembers our first-round wins in ’08 and ’09 in the NCAA tournament,” D’Argenio said.

That is where that train of thought stopped.

“We like to win,” D’Argenio continued, “but winning is not a given.”

Less than a decade ago, Siena had a four-point lead with less than eight minutes to play against Louisville with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line.

But head coach Fran McCaffery left after the next season. Since then, Siena, has gone through two more coaches and hasn’t been back to the NCAA tournament after making three consecutive trips to the Big Dance in McCaffery's final seasons in Loudonville. In the past eight seasons, Siena has gone 112-161, with three 20-loss campaigns. Two head coaches — first Mitch Buonaguro for three seasons, then Patsos for five — failed to return Siena to the heights the program reached under McCaffery, now at Iowa.

With McCaffery, Siena seemingly had its chance to reach the status it — and its fanbase — had long coveted: a perennial mid-major power, capable of making consistent trips to the NCAA tournament out of a one-bid league.

Instead, less than a decade later, Siena finds itself looking — again — to rebuild its program, this time likely from a tougher position than it has ever faced.

The current roster has some pieces to build around, but is flawed. Still, the bulk of that roster will be expected to carry Siena next season, since the school has no head coach as the spring signing period churns into high gear.

Within the MAAC, Siena has lost ground. Iona continues to dominate the conference, Quinnipiac is rising to challenge it, and the league’s tournament is in all likelihood moving away from Times Union Center after next season, with no guarantee it will return anytime soon.

Fan support has decreased. Average attendance for the 2017-18 season’s home games was 5,968 — the first time since the 2006-07 season that Siena averaged fewer than 6,000 per game.

Even with Patsos' departure, there is a cloud hanging over the program. The school’s investigation into the men’s basketball program continues, and there is no publicly available timeline as to when it could end.

Siena was a national darling less than a decade ago. The program again became a topic across the college basketball world less than two weeks ago, in less flattering terms.

“We have a great tradition and a great history, and — certainly — while you don’t like something like this to happen, I think that people recognize the values of Siena and what Siena stands for,” D’Argenio said. “I think they recognize — that they know — we’re here to make thing right.

“I, personally, and everybody in athletics, pledges that we will work with everybody to do that.”

The first step toward doing that? Finding the next Paul Hewitt or McCaffery for the program. D’Argenio said the school won’t rush into hiring its next coach — “I don’t think we can be swayed by false deadlines” — and didn’t rule out hiring a search firm. While most assume the school’s national search will end with the selection of Le Moyne head coach Patrick Beilein —  whose Division II team beat Siena in an exhibition game last November — D’Argenio said the school had not yet started its search for a new coach. Beilein, who played at West Virginia under his father, John Beilein (now at Michigan), has Division I assistant coaching experience. He has led Le Moyne to the past two NCAA Division II Tournaments.

“We certainly want somebody that’s going to embrace Siena, has had an experience like Siena, embraces what we’re trying to accomplish as a college and what we’re trying to accomplish as a basketball program,” D’Argenio said. “And, again, [someone who] embraces Siena, and its traditions and values.”

Part of that tradition has been the fielding of a strong men’s basketball program.

Now, the next challenge for Siena, is to bring that back.

“No one chooses adversity,” D’Argenio said, “but we must embrace it now.”

Reach Michael Kelly at [email protected] or @ByMichaelKelly on Twitter.

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