LOUDONVILLE — His first home game complete as Siena College men’s basketball head coach, Jamion Christian credited the program’s fans for the energy they had brought that evening to Times Union Center despite a losing effort from the Saints.
“Just knowledgeable fans. They really have a great understanding of it,” Christian said after that November game. “It’s just a great feeling in the building, and you want to do a great job for [the fans] because they support us so well.”
Then came the subtle ask, a gentle request for some patience — one of the few times Christian has done that since his May hire.
“Hopefully,” Christian said, “they’re pleased with our effort, and can kind of see where we’re going with this thing and how it’s going to build.”
A little more than a month later, Siena provided an example of the on-court blueprint Christian is looking for his program to follow. In a 21-point win against Cal Poly to wrap their non-conference season, the Saints’ defense was stifling and they used a 21-point advantage from behind the 3-point line to key their offense.
In short, the Saints had finally produced the “Mayhem” Christian promised.
“It will look like that,” Christian said afterwards. “It will be a great defensive — and connected — effort with our ability to make outside shots really impacting the game.”
As MAAC play starts 4 p.m. Thursday for Siena at Saint Peter’s, the question for the Saints is how repeatable the effort they delivered against Cal Poly is for them the rest of this season. Siena brings a 5-8 mark into conference play after a non-conference season during which the Saints mostly struggled to implement with success key parts of Christian’s strategy, such as the team’s full-court pressure defense.
“I love pressing,” Christian said in mid-December. “We just don’t have the depth right now to do it consistently.”
Siena has used its full-court press to slow opponents, but hasn’t had much success turning over opponents. Partially, that is because too many current Saints lack the needed combination of height and foot speed — for most, the latter has been the larger issue — to make the press work. Looking ahead to next season, Christian said the infusion of incoming Saints — 6-foot-6 Shawn Walker, 6-foot-8 Luke Sutherland and 6-foot-10 Kyle Young — should help Siena address that issue.
“I love size. Here, I think I can get size and athleticism,” Christian said. “So I think we’re going to be able to [press] better down the road, but we need to do a good job with it right now, too.”
When Christian coached at Mount St. Mary’s for six seasons, he often had to choose between athleticism and size when bringing in a player. Routinely, he took on long-term projects in need of serious development — and if a player’s potential was realized, he often soon transferred to a stronger league than the Northeast Conference, which is simply part of life for NEC coaches.
Meanwhile, at Siena, Christian expressed confidence within his first few weeks on the job that he could attract “high-level transfers.” That confidence has already been rewarded, as Siena added redshirt junior Elijah Burns — a Troy native who started his college career at Notre Dame — to its program earlier this season. With a smile, Christian said last month he wasn’t surprised his coaching staff was able to bring an ACC-level talent into the fold during its first season at Siena.
“I never believe in setting any limits,” said Christian, whose program is still waiting to find out if Burns will be declared eligible to play the rest of this season.
And despite Siena sitting three games below .500 and the limitations of this season’s roster, there is little reason to put a cap on this season’s potential for the Saints within MAAC play. In the 11-team league, seven teams registered between three and five wins during the non-conference season — and only one program, Niagara, heads into MAAC play with a winning record. All that is certain about Siena’s future is that the last-place prediction MAAC coaches placed upon the Saints before the season started will only be met if Siena underperforms during the next couple months, which Christian’s squad heads into off its best team performance of the season and with a pair of its players — senior Evan Fisher and freshman Jalen Pickett — reigning as the league’s top player and rookie of the week.
The future remains a bright one for Siena, but the immediate future appears brighter than was expected months ago.
“I think we’ve got a chance to be pretty special,” said Christian, whose Mount St. Mary’s teams went a combined 67-39 in league play. “I think we’ve just got to continue to grow.”