LOUDONVILLE — As the Siena College men’s basketball program prepared for last season, it did so as a squad with more unknown than known about it.
Move forward a year, and it’s a different feeling around the Saints, who officially opened practice Thursday. The head coach is new and the cast of players is remodeled, but these Saints bring with them serious outside expectations of success that last season’s team didn’t carry with it.
Their focus, though, is on the present, and not where this season could finish for a program that hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2010.
“We’re doing something to get better every day,” Siena head coach Carmen Maciariello said, “because if we’re not getting better, we’re getting worse.”
While there’s plenty of time — and need — to get better, this upcoming season’s Saints are ones with tremendous promise. The talent is there for a special season, likely the first time Siena’s been viewed that way since prior to a 2016-17 season that closed in the MAAC championship game.
“It’s too early,” Maciariello said when asked if he already knew his starting five for the upcoming season. “I want these guys all to work for that, but, obviously, there’s probably some guys that played significant minutes last year that will be penciled into that starting lineup.”
One of those players is guard Jalen Pickett, last season’s freshman star who was a first-team All-MAAC selection, then spent part of his spring going through the NBA pre-draft process. The other is Manny Camper, an athletic 6-foot-7 wing capable of playing several positions.
Beyond that? No returning Saint scored more than redshirt sophomore Jimmy Ratliff’s 60 total points last season, but fifth-year senior Elijah Burns and redshirt sophomore Don Carey — transfers who couldn’t play last season for the Saints — project to add serious offensive punch and gobble up plenty of minutes for a Siena squad that is expected to be one of the MAAC’s best in 2019-20 after finishing a surprising 17-16 last season.
Those four players — Burns, Camper, Carey and Pickett — serve this upcoming season as the Saints’ foundational pieces. Maciariello said he will “play with four guards and a forward” as often as possible, and Siena has a roster brimming with intriguing candidates to augment its expected core.
That was on display in Thursday’s practice. Freshman Gary Harris, a 6-foot-6 wing from Los Angeles who had high-major interest before choosing Siena, slammed down one ferocious dunk after another. The 6-foot-8 Ratliff and 6-foot-9 senior Sammy Friday, both players who saw their 2018-19 seasons hampered with injuries, looked healthy and ready to contribute.
On Siena’s practice floor, the talent level of this upcoming season’s Saints was visibly higher than it was a season ago — and Maciariello wants to use as much of it as possible during his first season as head coach.
“I want to be able to mix and match parts,” said Maciariello, whose team opens Nov. 5 at home against American.
For the Saints, though, everything comes back to Pickett. Last season’s MAAC Rookie of the Year averaged 15.8 points, 4.6 rebounds and 6.7 assists playing for a Siena squad that ranked second-to-last in the country in adjusted tempo, according to kenpom.com. He’ll likely find defenses less focused on him with Carey able to help with playmaking responsibilities, and the Saints’ desire to push the ball in transition should help Pickett find easy baskets — and assists — that weren’t part of Siena’s attack last season.
Calling Pickett the “ultimate competitor,” Maciariello said he wants more from the guard in terms of being a team leader as a sophomore.
“For your next step, you’ve got to also — besides doing it with your actions — you’ve got to do it with your words, and you’ve got to bring guys along with you,” Maciariello said was his message to Pickett.
Maciariello likened Thursday’s practice to a “next step” rather than a fresh start for the Saints. There was an energy, though, and an enthusiasm to the Saints as they — officially, at least — got to working toward their 2019-20 season.
“We want to go at a fast clip,” said Maciariello, who served as an assistant coach for Siena last season before becoming the head coach after Jamion Christian vacated the position to take charge of George Washington’s program. “We want to be super-efficient with our time. We don’t want to have any wasted motion, and we want to enjoy every moment we’re going through together as a team.”