LOUDONVILLE — Shortly before the formal press conference began last May to introduce Jamion Christian as the next head coach of the Siena College men’s basketball program, a group of the team’s players filed into the Times Union Center’s atrium in Albany and took their seats to watch.
Notably, several of the team’s freshmen who ended up transferring weren’t among the group. More notably, Kadeem Smithen was there, a player Siena had honored at that year’s Senior Day despite him having a year left of remaining eligibility and a guy whose potential transfer former Saints head coach Jimmy Patsos had openly discussed the possibility of happening.
But Smithen showed up to Christian’s introductory press conference with a smile and a sense of humor about his situation. In a quick conversation with a few area reporters before the press conference started, Smithen was asked if he might return.
“We’ll see,” said Smithen, who gestured toward where Christian would be sitting as if to indicate he needed to see what the coach’s message would be that day.
That message was one of enthusiasm and optimism. A fresh start for everyone, Christian said, would be offered — and, since that afternoon, Christian has often repeated a line to describe the type of relationship he’s tried to build with his players.
That line: “You either coach how you were coached, or you coach how you wanted to be coached.”
Eventually, Smithen opted to stay, but he wasn’t the only Siena upperclassmen in need of a fresh approach. The same went for fellow redshirt senior Kevin Degnan and senior Evan Fisher, veteran players Siena (9-6 MAAC, 14-14 overall) will honor before Sunday’s 2 p.m. Senior Day game against Marist (7-8, 12-15) at Times Union Center along with fifth-year senior Braedon Bayer — who joined the Saints last year — and senior walk-on Paulo Morastoni.
“We’ve got a great senior class of guys that have really earned their right to be here,” Christian said earlier this week.
Fisher and Smithen have been at Siena for four seasons, while Degnan’s been with the team for three. Throughout this season, each of those three players have generally declined to offer answers of much substance regarding how things went last season, a campaign that ended with an 8-24 record and the program the subject of a school investigation related to the former coaching staff’s conduct.
Christian, though, has waded into that territory on several occasions. Earlier this month was one of them.
“I think we’ve got a lot of special kids in this locker room that maybe have been underappreciated before and I think we’re just trying to give them the power of belief and the power of appreciation every single day,” Christian said in response to a question about the quality of his team’s morale. “I think it’s just really gone a long way.”
On the improved culture around the Saints, Christian added: “That’s what we’re trying to create here, and it’s not done. That’s something you’ve got to fight for every single day.”
While freshman Jalen Pickett has starred on the court as the Saints’ best player and is already a strong vocal leader, it’s inarguable the crucial role the veteran trio of Fisher, Degnan and Smithen has played this season for Siena.
Recast as a true post player and made an offensive focal point, Fisher has starred as a senior after three inconsistent season. The heartbeat of this season’s Saints, Fisher has averaged team-highs in points (15.7) and rebounds (6.0) per game while guiding Siena’s tops-in-the-MAAC defense with his constant communication.
Meanwhile, Siena’s surge up the MAAC standings can be directly tied to Smithen’s increased playing time and production. Siena was 1-3 in the MAAC and 6-11 overall before Smithen started regularly playing 20-plus minutes. Since that change, Smithen’s energetic play and timely offensive contributions have helped fuel Siena to win eight of 11 games.
Then there is Degnan, the player whose spot in the starting lineup this season was met with skepticism after he only played 89 minutes last season. Degnan’s contributed per-game averages of 8.1 points and 5.9 rebounds in 32.9 minutes, and said earlier this week he’s remained grateful Christian gave him a chance at all.
“He didn’t have to, but he did,” Degnan said, “and I’m really thankful for that.”
Christian expressed thanks, too, earlier this week for the way his first Siena senior class has helped the program tackle the “monumental task” of starting to rebuild itself. The Saints, picked to finish in last place in the MAAC, head into Sunday’s game tied for fourth place and a game out of first.
Smithen said this year’s Senior Day ceremony, the second of his Siena career, will be a “little bit more emotional” for him than the one he had last year. There’s no uncertainty around his status this time, but there is certainty regarding the direction of the program he’s helped lead this season.
“It feels even better that Siena is starting to come back to the program it used to be,” Smithen said.