ALBANY — With a largely inexperienced roster, and everyone on it learning a new system, Siena College men’s basketball head coach Jamion Christian said Friday he expected progress within his first season with the Saints to go a certain way.
“Baby step, baby step, fall back, baby step, fall back,” Christian said.
“A giant leap forward,” the coach finished.
So far, that leap has not come for the Saints, who finish the non-conference portion of their season 2 p.m. Saturday with a game at Times Union Center against Cal Poly. Siena brings a 4-8 record into its final game of 2018, and is coming off a 60-57 loss at Holy Cross in which the Saints’ defense failed to hold onto a double-digit, second-half lead.
“We’re still in this defensive theme,” Christian said. “We’ve got to continue to get better defensively. I’m seeing a ton of great strides, though, and we’re not seeing those strides right now carry into the game. But I’m watching it in practice, and I think we’re getting so much better.”
Cal Poly, despite its 3-8 record, presents a tough challenge on the perimeter for the Siena defense. Cal Poly is averaging 25.6 attempts from 3-point territory this season, while the Saints have allowed opposing offenses to make a robust 44.6 percent of their 3s this season.
“They’re really similar to us,” Siena redshirt senior Kevin Degnan said. “They shoot a lot of 3s.”
Setting up that offense for Cal Poly is Newburgh native Donovan Fields, the team’s 5-foot-10 senior who is averaging a team-high 16.2 points.
“He’s small,” Siena senior Evan Fisher said, “but he’s dangerous.”
Keeping Fields from penetrating is a top focus for the Saints, who have struggled to guard opposing playmakers. Christian said his roster’s inexperience is largely to blame for that, as the Saints’ guards and wings are still learning the college game.
“When you’re playing high school or prep school games,” Christian said, “you can’t really put your hands on the opposing team and, again, we’re one of the best team in the country at not fouling, but there is a level of friction that you got to have when the ball gets into the lane that stops the momentum of the drive.”
That connection, from defender to ball-handler, is one Siena needs to continue to work on improving. Christian, though, said the connection between his players — the “connectivity” they have built — is at a high level, and compared it favorably with his past teams at Mount St. Mary’s.
“We’ve got a great team ego where everyone really believes in one another and they’re really fighting for one another,” Christian said.
Sophomore Manny Camper will miss a second consecutive game with what Christian described as a “lower-leg injury.”
The coach said Camper, who started Siena’s first 11 games, hasn’t practiced since last week.
“But I’m expecting him to be ready when we play next week,” said Christian, meaning Camper should be back for the start of MAAC play.
An athletic department spokesman said Siena has not received an update on when the NCAA will decide to grant or deny the school’s attempt to secure a waiver to allow transfer Elijah Burns to play this season.
Burns, a Troy native, started the 2018-19 season with Notre Dame and appeared in four games. He officially arrived at Siena in mid-December as a graduate transfer.
In partnership with the Autism Society of the Greater Capital Region, Siena’s game against Cal Poly will be the program’s first-ever “Sensory Friendly and Autism Awareness Game.”
Per a release from Siena, accommodations made to create a more sensory-friendly atmosphere at the game include “slight in-game adjustments . . . made to the lighting, public address, and music levels, and flashing ads on the video scoreboard, ribbon boards, and scorer’s table and media table LED displays will be eliminated.”