LOUDONVILLE — His team hasn’t played the Siena College men’s basketball team yet this season, but Rider head coach Kevin Baggett said it’s clear from afar what’s happening with the Saints under first-year head coach Jamion Christian.
“Jamion is creating a new culture up there and they’re all buying in,” Baggett said in a recent phone interview. “You can see that with them.”
Baggett will get the chance to see that up close 2 p.m. Sunday when the Saints, on the road at Rider, look to win their fourth consecutive game. Rider and Siena enter the game with identical 7-4 marks in MAAC play and as two of five teams tied for the fewest losses in conference play.
Overall, the MAAC has experienced a down season. That’s an expected development given the amount of coaching and player turnover from last season, but one that’s played out in a more unpredictable manner than likely thought. Sunday’s game between Rider and Siena provides the latest example of the widespread parity in the MAAC, as Rider was projected — unanimously — to win the league in its preseason coaches poll and Siena was picked to finish last.
“Watching the league and watching what Jamion has done at Siena, the league is open. Any team could win it,” Baggett said. “It still will come down to those three games in that [MAAC] tournament.”
Rider entered this season as the league’s favorite after sharing last season’s MAAC regular-season championship with Canisius. Along with its preseason selection as the conference favorite, four Rider players were picked to preseason all-conference teams.
“But you have to live up to those expectations,” Baggett said.
He added: “We’ve got to mature. We’ve got to grow up. Guys need to understand our sense of urgency.”
Baggett credited Siena, which had zero players selected to the preseason all-conference teams, for its ability to exceed expectations. The overall talent on Siena’s active roster isn’t among the league’s best, but the team has performed in a whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts manner for the bulk of the season. Christian and his players attribute that to their on-court, and off-court, chemistry.
“When you have that,” Christian said Wednesday, “it takes care of a lot of things.”
“I’ve just been here so long and we’ve been through a lot of tough times here, so [I’m] just enjoying this last stretch. Win or loss, it’s just been a lot of fun,” Siena senior Evan Fisher said. “This group of guys really makes it that way.”
Christian said he “walked into a great situation” when he took control of Siena’s program in May. That’s an assessment fellow MAAC coaches disagreed with in the form of their preseason votes.
Now? That’s changed, as the Saints have won six of seven games and are developing into a true contender for the league championship.
“They’re balanced. They’re getting contributions from a number of guys, from top to bottom,” Baggett said. “They’re not a one-man band. They’re a team.”