LOUDONVILLE — In one of Jamion Christian’s first conversations with fifth-year senior Kevin Degnan this past offseason, the new Siena College men’s basketball head coach expressed enthusiasm about what the previously little-used forward could do for the Saints.
“You’re perfect for how we play,” Christian told Degnan.
Siena’s new coach nearly repeated that line with another largely unknown Saint in redshirt freshman Jimmy Ratliff, a transfer from North Alabama.
“You’re perfect, as well,” Christian told him.
Through a 1-1 start, how Christian envisioned Degnan and Ratliff fitting in for the Saints has gone as well as the coach could have expected — and likely far better than any outsider could have imagined. The pair of forwards have combined to man the 3 spot within Christian’s system, providing valuable outside shooting and playing atop the Saints’ full-court press. Degnan, the 6-foot-9 starter, has averaged 12.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 24.5 minutes per game, while the 6-foot-8 Ratliff is at 5.5 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.0 steals in 19.0 minutes off the bench.
Degnan played a total of 89 minutes, while Ratliff sat out the 2017-18 season for a program that just played its first Division I game last week.
None of that made Christian nervous about essentially committing a full-time lineup spot to the combination. When he showed up to replace Jimmy Patsos as Siena’s head coach, Christian said he brought a “clean slate” with him for each player.
“So I didn’t judge anyone on this group, good or bad. I just wanted to come in and kind of see what they could do every day,” Christian said at Tuesday’s practice as the Saints prepared for Friday’s game vs. Norfolk State. “It doesn’t matter how you get into the group. It matters what you do once you’re here.”
Degnan and Ratliff were quick to embrace that.
“I’m just thankful to Coach,” Degnan said. “He’s giving me a chance to play this year, and I’m taking every opportunity I can get.”
“And I’m just trying to make an impact,” Ratliff said.
While Degnan and Ratliff have combined to make 11 of 22 3-pointers, the duo has offered more to the Saints on defense. At least one of those two players has always been on the court for the Saints, and one of them is always at the top of Siena’s full-court pressure. That means Degnan or Ratliff starts off guarding the ball out-of-bounds and then hurry to the corner to create the first trapping situation.
“It’s a lot of running back and forth, a lot of trapping,” Ratliff said. “Coach just wants me to try to force the ball to the corner so we can get our trap and try for a turnover. If [we don’t create a turnover], we’re trying to get multiple traps until they get to half court.”
“With those two up there, we have trust in them that they’ll do their job and we’ll get the stops we need,” fifth-year senior Kadeem Smithen said.
Through two games, Siena’s opponents have averaged 11.5 turnovers per game. The Saints want that number to grow, but they’re already showing comfort in their new defensive system.
“Coach [does] a lot of subs, so our mindset is just go as hard as you can for that time you’re in the game and eventually a sub is going to come,” Degnan said. “But when you’re in there, focus on going extremely hard and playing with your guys.”
And when a substitute comes for Degnan, it is typically Ratliff.
“They’re so big and they’re really good movers,” Christian said of what helps Degnan and Ratliff atop Siena’s press.
It’s possible Siena could use a different player or two atop its full-court pressure as the season progresses. Christian, though, doesn’t see how anyone on his current roster could man that spot better than one of Degnan and Ratliff.
“Those guys just fit it perfectly,” Christian said.