LOUDONVILLE — Its offense wasn’t producing, and the Saints’ double-digit lead had nearly all been erased. Manhattan had pulled within a single point of Siena in Sunday’s MAAC men’s basketball game, and plenty of time remained on the clock.
The Saints needed an answer, and they delivered with one they couldn’t for much of this season.
The Saints got one stop . . . then another . . . and another. Manhattan’s own struggles, certainly, played a role in its inability to score for more than seven minutes of game action, but there was more to it than that. The Jaspers didn’t miss nine consecutive field-goal attempts and fail to score for 11 consecutive possessions all on their own.
“I don’t believe in just missing shots,” Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello said after his team’s 65-52 defeat. “Always give credit to the opponent.”
Siena deserved some after it secured a 13-point win to improve to 12-0 at Times Union Center in Albany, especially since it did so in much different fashion than in many of its wins from early this season. First-year head coach Carmen Maciariello’s Saints, equipped with as much offensive firepower as any team in the MAAC, was always going to score points this season — but being able to win with defense was not something this season’s squad was ever guaranteed to be able to do.
“The best teams,” Maciariello said after Sunday’s win, “can do it at both ends.”
Heading into Wednesday’s 7 p.m. matchup at home against Iona (7-7, 9-12), Siena (9-5, 13-10) comfortably leads the MAAC in scoring on a per-possession basis, according to the statistical database available at kenpom.com. The Saints’ mark of 107.2 points per 100 possessions in conference-only offensive efficiency is three full points ahead of the next-best squad. Meanwhile, Siena’s defense ranks seventh in the 11-team MAAC at 100 points per 100 possessions, but the Saints are trending in the right direction on that end of the floor. Four of Siena’s top-six defensive efforts this season on a points-per-possession basis have come in the Saints’ last six games, and Siena has met its team goal of allowing 65 or fewer points in six of its last seven games.
Nobody is confusing the Saints with one of the MAAC’s top defensive teams quite yet, but Siena’s offensive strength dictates that the Saints don’t need to be one them, either.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel here or doing anything new,” said Siena assistant coach Antoni Wyche, the team’s defensive coordinator, the role Maciariello played last season as an assistant coach for then-head coach Jamion Christian. “We’re not the fleetest of foot, but we have good length, so we’re able to use our length to pressure the ball, get into some gaps and mess up some people’s rhythm a little bit — and I think that brings us energy, in spurts.”
And, then, Wyche offers the key to it all: “We’re just establishing that trust.”
That wasn’t there earlier this season — and it couldn’t have been for the Saints. While Siena is trying to build off its 2018-19 season in which it finished 17-16 and reloaded the program in terms of talent, this season’s Saints are nearly entirely new to playing alongside each other. The team has regularly started three players this season that didn’t play for it last season, and at no point this season has Siena used a full lineup that played a single minute together last season. Of Siena’s top-seven players in terms of minutes played this season, only junior Manny Camper and sophomore Jalen Pickett had played a minute of college basketball together before the Saints’ opening-night win vs. American back in November.
“The biggest thing,” Camper said at Tuesday’s practice regarding his team’s defensive growth, “was just playing together and being able to jell.”
Siena, Wyche said, doesn’t have “standout, great individual defensive players,” but the Saints can use their length to swarm opposing teams, while their versatility allows them freedom in deciding how to match up in their man-to-man defense. While Siena generally assigns the 6-foot-7 Camper to the opposing team’s top threat, Siena’s starters all range in height from 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-8, so the Saints don’t necessarily need to allow height to play as much of a role in determining its 1-on-1 matchups. On some nights, that’s less than ideal, but the MAAC’s list of tall, go-to scorers isn’t a long one.
“We have good size and mobility,” Wyche said, “so we can switch a lot of things.”
And, individually, Saints have bought into what’s needed on the defensive end for the team to succeed. When playing as a true freshman at Mount St. Mary’s, redshirt sophomore Don Carey generally guarded opposing 1s and 2s. This season, increasingly, he’s taken on a more versatile defensive role. The 6-foot-5, 185-pound Carey spent a large chunk of last Friday’s win against Rider defending 6-foot-8, 230-pound Frederick Scott, while he matched up with several players against Manhattan. Carey said he’s needed to devote extra time to preparing to defend a range of players, but that he can use his quickness to “beat [larger opponents] to spots” to make up for size he gives up in those matchups.
“Don’s a very competitive person, so he takes pride in challenges,” Wyche said. “At the beginning of the year, we talked about some things defensively that we thought he was being targeted for, and he took that to heart.”
While no Siena player qualifies as a lock-down defender, the Saints do have unique features to their defense that make them capable of giving opponents fits. Pickett, the team’s 6-foot-4 point guard, leads the team in blocked shots at 1.2 per game, while 6-foot-6 freshman starter Gary Harris has provided several highlight-worthy blocks to erase fast-break chances for opponents. Fifth-year senior Elijah Burns anchors the team’s defense as its 6-foot-8 starting forward, but senior Sammy Friday and freshman Kyle Young — each standing 6-foot-9 and weighing approximately 240 pounds — add significant size as backup bigs. Fifth-year senior Matt Hein provides a versatile defensive option. Meanwhile, freshman Jordan King, the team’s shortest rotation player at 6-foot-0, provides a different look off the bench with his ability to apply pressure to opposing ball-handlers.
“Coach Carm has been really emphasizing ball pressure on the defensive end,” Pickett said. “Pushing teams out on the catch. Making them play from further out.”
Iona, the MAAC’s four-time defending champion that has won its last four games after a 5-12 start, will test the Saints’ improving defense. Iona is averaging 77.3 points per game during its winning streak, and associate head coach Tra Arnold — leading the Gaels this season as head coach Tim Cluess deals with an undisclosed health issue — sees his squad improving in similar fashion to Siena.
“We’re getting better defensively in a lot of different aspects,” Arnold said Tuesday in a phone call. “And, then, offensively, we’re starting to play better. We’re sharing the ball. Playing as a team.”
Siena earned its lone road win of the season at Iona last month with a 23-point victory. Iona has won 10 of the last 11 matchups between the teams in Albany, but Maciariello said he’s not concerned with Iona’s recent success at Times Union Center.
“I don’t care. Nope. None. That was in the past,” Maciariello said.
Siena enters the game in second place, a half-game behind Saint Peter’s. The teams are tied in the loss column, so Siena will leave Wednesday night tied for first place with a win — and Maciariello said his sole focus is on making sure his Saints put themselves in position to do that, regardless of what challenges Iona presents them.
“To be honest with you,” Maciariello said, “it’s going to be about what we do. It has nothing to do with Iona.”
And, at this point, what the Saints want to do is pretty clear.
“We’ve got to keep riding the momentum, keep sharing the ball,” Pickett said, “and play aggressive defense.”