LOUDONVILLE — It was one of the more difficult losses of the season.
Siena College men’s basketball head coach Jamion Christian, though, doesn’t expect any lingering emotions from Monday’s 63-60 overtime defeat against Monmouth to affect the Saints when they play host 7 p.m. Thursday to Niagara.
“We’ve got such a tough group of guys in that locker room,” Christian said before Wednesday’s practice. “We’ve made our focus all season long about learning and growing, and learning and improving. . . . We’ve responded all year long.”
The latest thing the Saints need to respond to is their three-point loss to Monmouth, a game in which Siena made 4 of 14 free throws and saw senior Evan Fisher miss a pair of late free throws with Siena down one.
Similarly, Niagara (1-3 MAAC, 8-9 overall) comes into its matchup with Siena (1-3, 6-11) needing to find some answers. After Niagara was the only MAAC squad to post a winning record during the non-conference season, the Purple Eagles have lost three of their first four conference games and each of those losses came by at least 10 points.
“We know we’re also capable of stringing together a bunch of good games,” Niagara head coach Chris Casey said. “A lot of it depends on out shot-making . . . but we can’t let non-shot-making affect us on the defensive end.”
Siena’s three conferences losses have come by a combined total of 12 points.
“I think we’ve been doing everything we can all year long to prepare for tough, emotional battles,” Christian said, “and we’ve got a great opportunity to see if that’s true when we play Niagara.”
Siena doesn’t want to run.
Niagara wants to as much as possible.
Through Tuesday’s games, kenpom.com shows Siena ranking last in the country in average possession length, while Niagara ranks No. 35. On the season, Niagara is taking 15.8 seconds per possession, while Siena is at 21.6.
“You have to prepare for that,” Casey said. “You hope you can get the game going faster. We want to play fast and put some points up. There’s different ways you can do that, but the most important thing is to get defensive stops and rebounds. That gives you the chance to get out in transition.”
Which, of course, Siena will try to prevent every chance it gets.
“I think tempo is a huge thing for us,” Siena senior Evan Fisher said. “I think when we’re playing at our pace, we’re one of the most dangerous teams in the league.”
Siena freshman Georges Darwiche said it was a “confidence booster” that he stayed in the starting lineup after sophomore Manny Camper, previously a starter, returned from injury.
While Camper remains a significant contributor for the Saints off the bench, Christian said he likes the extra ball-handling Darwiche brings to the starting lineup. Darwiche has performed well on the defensive end of the court, too, but Christian wants to see Darwiche start to assert himself more offensively, especially as more opposing defensive attention shifts to Siena freshman Jalen Pickett.
“I’m looking for him to start dominating some of these games offensively,” Christian said. “Guys are doubling off him some to double Jalen, and Georges Darwiche, man, he can shoot the ball and he can make plays, so if I’m opposing teams, I think that’s a dangerous strategy.”
On the season, Darwiche is averaging 2.6 points on 2.7 shots per game.
POSTING UP PICKETT
Late in Monday’s loss vs. Monmouth, Siena explored using Camper as its primary ball-handler on a few possessions in an attempt to allow Pickett to become more of a scoring option.
That tactic could become a regular piece of the Saints’ attack.
“It just depends on how the defense guards us. Monmouth was really trying to take him out, so we had a few things in place to take him off the ball and make adjustments from there,” said Siena assistant coach Graham Bousley, who runs the Saints’ offense. “We want to move him around so defenses can’t key on him.”
On one possession, the 6-foot-4 Pickett posted up a smaller defender and called for the ball. It wasn’t delivered, but Bousley said posting up is part of Pickett’s game that Siena wants to unlock.
“It’s funny because in the summer all he did was post up,” Bousley said. “He’s like a mid-post guard. His favorite player ever is Kobe Bryant, so he loves trying Kobe mid-post stuff.”
On the season, Pickett is averaging 14.7 points and 7.3 assists per game.
After not seeing the court for five consecutive games, fifth-year senior Braedon Bayer has appeared in the last four games for the Saints. While the minutes he has logged in those recent games have been few, he appears to have developed a small — but significant — role in allowing Pickett to get some extra rest early in games.
“During that whole time I was [not playing at all], I just was like, ‘OK, I’m a fifth-year guy, I’ve got nothing to lose,’” Bayer said. “So I just kept coming here, working hard to do my best to make the most of the experience. . . . I just had to prepare for every game like I’d be playing 20 minutes.”
After seeing very limited action against Saint Peter’s and Canisius, Bayer logged three minutes against Marist and five against Monmouth. He took only one shot in those games, but logged an assist against Marist and had no turnovers in any of those games.
“I just had to stay ready,” Bayer said.
At one point, maintaining focus against Marist, a school less than a half-hour away from Bayer’s hometown of Lagrangeville, was extra tough. During one of the game’s first media timeouts, Bayer said his grandmother — “She’s a late arriver” — tried to get his attention as she walked by the Saints’ bench.
“She came in and she just saw me, so she was like, ‘Braedon — hey!’ and I was like, ‘I’m in the huddle, I can’t really talk right now,’” Bayer said. “It was funny.”