LOUDONVILLE — It wasn’t fun to go through, but a college season is long enough to leave plenty of time for improvement.
And that’s why Siena College men’s basketball assistant coach Carmen Maciariello — the Saints coach in charge of the team’s defense — never let the squad’s defensive struggles through its first dozen games or so discourage him.
“I wouldn’t say it was tough on me, personally. It just comes with the territory,” Maciariello said. “But we weren’t winning much, either, and we want to win games.”
Siena has won four of its last five after starting the season 5-10 — and its positive shift on the defensive end of the court is a major reason why that’s happened. While data available at kenpom.com shows Siena still with a bottom-50 defense nationally when adjusted for possessions, the Saints rank No. 1 in the MAAC since conference play started. Overall this season, Siena has allowed 110.9 points per 100 possessions on the defensive end — but that number drops to a league-best 93.8 in the Saints’ seven conference games.
“When we all do our jobs defensively,” Siena redshirt senior Kadeem Smithen said, “we’re unstoppable.”
Figuring out those jobs? Largely, that has been Maciariello’s task.
“Coach Carm’s done a great job just preparing these guys defensively,” Siena head coach Jamion Christian said after the Saints’ best defensive effort of the season came in a 53-40 win against Manhattan in which the Jaspers scored 0.75 points per possession and shot 15 of 41.
That defensive effort was part of a recent trend in which the Saints have held their last four opponents to fewer than 1.00 points per possession. In Siena’s first 16 games, the Saints accomplished that benchmark only three times.
“If we’re under one point per possession,” Maciariello said, “I feel pretty good.”
For the majority of the season, Siena played a matchup zone defense and pressed whenever it could. That changed several games ago, as the Saints have become a man-to-man team that rarely extends its defense beyond half court.
“And we’ve done a better job now with transition defense. Early on, that wasn’t up to par and some teams — especially the Patriot League teams we played — were getting open 3s in transition on us. Now, we’ve done a better job with that,” Maciariello said. “To give up a high percentage of 3s and uncontested shots, that was definitely frustrating, personally, because we always want to be our best.”
In half-court sets, Siena struggled within its matchup zone to defend corner 3-pointers on a consistent basis. The switch to man-to-man has eliminated that issue, and Siena senior Evan Fisher provided an answer as to why that’s been the case.
“We’re a little bit of an unorthodox team in that we start three guys who are 6-foot-9, so it’s tough to play a little different kind of a defense for us,” said Fisher, Siena’s top on-court communicator on the defensive end. “Going back to man and keeping it simple, it’s made things easier for us in that way.”
While that strategy switch has helped the Saints with their on-court communication, Maciariello assigned much of Siena’s improvement to its level of confidence — and comfort — with the program’s coaching staff as the season has continued.
“I think that’s been the bigger key,” Maciariello said. “Early in the year, guys don’t really know you. We were a new coaching staff and as much team building as you do in the offseason and preseason, you then get thrown into the fire together when you’re competing, playing games and building up trust. Now, we have more trust.”
More fun, too.
Christian said this season’s Saints are the first team he has encountered that enjoy the defensive sections of practice more than the offensive ones.
“That’s when everybody goes crazy,” said Siena freshman Jalen Pickett, who secured Monday his fifth consecutive MAAC Rookie of the Week award.
“The guys really gas it up a little bit [for defensive work] in practice,” Maciariello said. “It’s not that they love playing defense all the time, but they realize it’s helped us win games.”
Pickett leads the Saints in steals with 2.2 per game ahead of their game Thursday at Monmouth. The star freshman said his prowess in playing passing lanes is a credit to Maciariello.
“Coach Carm does a great job of going over the other team’s plays in scouts and putting us in the right positions to anticipate and just play the passing lanes,” Pickett said.
Where credit belongs, though, is not a concern for Maciariello and the Saints.
Continuing to get stops at a high level is the priority.
“It’s just fun to be a part of something like this where nobody worries about who is getting the credit,” Maciariello said.