LOUDONVILLE — Manny Camper knew what went right in Tuesday’s season-opening game for the Siena men’s basketball team.
“The biggest thing is we really just connected,” Camper, a junior, said after the Saints’ 96-80 win against American in Albany. “We played as a unit. We played very unselfish. We stuck to the game plan, and it worked.”
The challenge directly ahead of the Saints, though, will make doing all that much more difficult.
Off running past a Patriot League foe playing without its top player, Siena heads to Cintas Center in Cincinnati for a 7 p.m. Friday matchup with nationally ranked Xavier, a Big East squad coming off a 76-57 win against Jacksonville. Ranked No. 19 in the media poll and No. 21 in the coaches’ poll, Xavier represents the top test during the non-conference season for Siena.
The Saints possess a healthy level of respect for Xavier. Originally, Siena was slated to start its season at Xavier. After Tuesday’s win, Siena head coach Carmen Maciariello said sophomore Jalen Pickett had urged the coach earlier this year to try to see if the Saints could get a tune-up game before facing the Musketeers.
“Jalen’s like, ‘Coach, we’re going right to play a top-25 team on the road? Can’t we get a home game first?’” Maciariello said after his successful head-coaching debut. “So I got that [American] game for Jalen.”
Pickett didn’t start against American after being late to a team lifting session, but Pickett should join the Saints’ starting lineup against Xavier. Without Pickett available to start against American, Siena went with a starting group of fifth-year senior Elijah Burns, Camper, redshirt sophomore Don Carey, fifth-year senior Matt Hein and freshman Jordan King. In all likelihood, Pickett replaces King in that group moving forward.
Xavier’s Travis Steele is a second-year head coach, and led Xavier to a 19-16 finish last season and an appearance in the NIT. In a press conference Thursday, Steele said the Saints’ backcourt combination of Carey and Pickett should pose problems for Xavier.
“They’re not going to be scared to come in here and play,” Steele said of the Saints. “I anticipate we’re going to get their best shot.”
Xavier returns four starters from last season and was picked to finish third in the Big East. Xavier junior Naji Marshall was a preseason first-team selection in the Big East, and he scored 17 points to share the team’s scoring lead with junior Tyrique Jones against Jacksonville.
All-time, Xavier has defeated Siena in three of four games between the programs. The teams last played when Xavier defeated Siena 96-88 in Albany on Dec. 23, 2002. That Xavier team featured Albany native Lionel Chalmers, as well as David West who retired from the NBA in 2018 after a 15-season career. West was the national player of the year during the 2002-03 season.
Against American, Siena pushed to a 28-point lead early in the second half. The Saints, though, relaxed from there and were outscored in the final 20 minutes.
“Sometimes, I think our guys are a little too confident in their abilities on the offensive end,” Maciariello said. “I think you kind of saw that in that second half.”
Against a powerful Xavier squad, the Saints cannot afford any lapses in effort or focus.
“We have to stay level-headed and play our game,” Camper said.