LOUDONVILLE — Every coach has a selection of go-to phrases.
For Jamion Christian, one of them is to set up a point with “the reality of it is.”
And those are a fitting five words to use when evaluating where the Siena College men's basketball program goes from here — because, the reality of it is, the Saints’ just-completed 2018-19 season likely featured the least firepower of any team Christian coaches at Siena.
That’s not so much a knock on a group that overachieved in posting a winning 17-16 record in Christian’s debut season with the Saints as it is a careful look at what the program’s coaching staff has built in the last 10 months to set it up for the future.
“Siena is going to be a force to be reckoned with these next few years,” redshirt senior Kadeem Smithen said shortly after his college career ended with Sunday’s MAAC tournament semifinal loss to Iona.
After the Saints were picked to finish last in the MAAC and ended up in a four-way tie for second place, Siena won’t catch anyone in its league by surprise next season.
“We changed the culture this year, and we’re just going to try to keep building on that and keep the momentum,” Siena freshman Jalen Pickett said.
"[Christian’s] really done a lot to get the players to buy in and believe again,” Siena athletic director John D’Argenio said.
Gone will be significant contributors in Kevin Degnan, Evan Fisher and Smithen, but Siena is slated to return three starters in sophomore Manny Camper, Pickett and freshman Sloan Seymour, several reserves that should improve after an offseason, plus Saints such as redshirt junior Elijah Burns, sophomore Don Carey, junior Sammy Friday and junior Khalil Richard who missed all or most of the 2018-19 season because of transferring or injury.
“I think it’s easy to be excited about next year, but it’s not like you get to start where you finished,” Christian said. “So the challenges become different and the challenge will be for us to try to learn what those challenges are as they kind of present themselves.”
Perhaps the top challenge for the 2018-19 Saints was how they “just weren’t able to get any easy baskets,” especially after the team switched to playing at one of the slowest tempos in the country. That move was made as a concession to the lack of individual offensive talent on Siena’s roster, and it was a tactic that allowed Pickett — the MAAC Rookie of the Year and a first-team All-MAAC pick — to control an even higher percentage of possessions for the Saints.
Next season’s Saints? Even before considering the impact that any of the program’s three incoming freshmen — Luke Sutherland, Shawn Walker and Kyle Young — could make, the Saints will add two players to their rotation in Carey and Richard capable of serving as significant ball-handlers and playmakers. After Sunday’s loss, Christian referenced one of next season’s top challenges as being how to handle managing increased offensive talent.
“As we add new personalities in, as we add new players in, creating a system that fits everyone and keeps everyone happy and in a great place, those kinds of challenges kind of present themselves,” Christian said.
In the immediate future, Christian said the Saints will fully break for a week before going through season-ending meetings. Beyond that, the team’s coaching staff will begin a “huge evaluation” of the season that Christian said will focus on figuring out what went wrong with the Saints’ offense for much of the conference season, and what was responsible for the team’s defensive struggles in its final couple weeks.
“So we’ll do a full evaluation on everything, from guys catching the ball the right way, to passing the ball the right way,” Christian said.
Christian does want to see the Saints play faster next season. As injuries shortened Siena’s rotation this season, the team played slower and abandoned the full-court trapping defense that Christian prefers. At least to some degree, it’s safe to expect the Saints will look to run more next season and encourage higher-possession games.
“Man, I hope we’re getting up and down a little bit more because I love being able to play in transition, especially when you have a dynamic point guard like Jalen Pickett,” Christian said. “Being able to get him out and play in transition makes his life easier. Guys like Sloan Seymour are excellent in transition. I expect Elijah Burns to be the same way, and Don Carey. I expect all these guys to be able to play really well in transition.”
Siena exceeded expectations in Christian’s first season.
In his second, the Saints will need to meet higher expectations for them to continue to move forward.
“We’ve got to get to work,” Christian said.