Siena keeps winning.
But Saints head coach Carmen Maciariello is certain his men’s basketball team, alone in first place in the MAAC after Saint Peter’s lost Thursday to Niagara, can play better — and he makes sure to let his players know that every day. There is another level — maybe more than one — for the Saints to reach, and Maciariello is determined his club will get there in time for this year’s MAAC tournament, which Siena only has three more regular-season games before it enters.
The first of those three games takes place 7 p.m. Friday at Marist, and Maciariello wants more from his Saints in that game than he’s gotten from them in some of their recent wins.
“We’ve been able to win, but our effort in those games gets you sent home early in Atlantic City,” Maciariello said Thursday in a phone interview, a morning after the Saints secured their sixth consecutive win with an 84-77 victory at Quinnipiac. “The guys know that. We’ve talked about it.”
A team built around a talented offensive core of fifth-year senior Elijah Burns, junior Manny Camper, redshirt sophomore Don Carey and sophomore Jalen Pickett, the Saints have often been able to rely on their offensive firepower to cover for when the team as a whole freelances away from its game plan.
That was the case Wednesday night at Quinnipiac, a victory that saw Siena’s leading four scorers combine for 64 points on 43 shots . . . and the Bobcats drain 14 of 28 shots from 3-point territory. Siena won fairly comfortably, but the whole defensive game plan against Quinnipiac — for any team that plays the Bobcats — revolved around chasing shooters off the 3-point line. Instead, the Saints — ironically, the MAAC’s top team at defending the 3-point line this season before Wednesday night — too often missed assignments along the perimeter.
“I just thought our attention to detail and our focus wasn’t good,” Maciariello said.
Making sure that focus is there for the Saints starts with Pickett. While Burns and Camper were named the team’s co-captains last week, Pickett is the player the Saints lean on most to make everything work. When he plays at the level he’s capable of reaching, he’s the top player in the MAAC and turns Siena into a matchup nightmare for opponents.
“When Jalen is locked in defensively and offensively — when he’s attacking offensively and he’s pressuring the ball defensively, and adhering to the game plan — we’re in a great spot and our guys feed off that,” Maciariello said. “When he’s locked in and his energy is great, all of our guys step in line.”
Against Marist (6-11, 7-19) earlier this season, Siena (12-5, 16-10) cruised to a 70-57 victory in a game that Pickett controlled. The sophomore only had a dozen points that night, but added six rebounds and eight assists with only one turnover. Siena never trailed in that game, which started the team’s stretch of 10 games in which it has won nine times.
That success has already left Siena with a first-round bye in the MAAC tournament, and in a strong position to earn one of the tournament’s coveted top seeds. Besides already not needing to play on the tournament’s first game, Siena can avoid needing to play potentially three games in three days if it earns a top-two seed.
That matters for a team that relies so heavily on its starting five, but the MAAC tournament’s scheduling gives an extra boost to its top seeds, too. Since Monmouth and Quinnipiac joined the league for the 2013-14 season, 17 of the league’s 24 semifinalists have been top-four seeds, while half of the league’s finalists have been top-two seeds.
The Saints aren’t preoccupied with the standings, but they understand they’ve put themselves in position to earn something meaningful.
“We try not to look at it, but just knowing that we can potentially be in first place, that definitely is a great accomplishment,” Camper said earlier this week. “We’re putting our focus on one game at a time, knowing that we can control our own destiny.”
After starting 0-9 on the road this season, Siena has won three of its last four games away from Times Union Center in Albany. If the Saints execute, another road win is there for the taking against a Marist squad that’s lost four of its last five games — but Maciariello is concerned with more than wins and losses at this point in the season.
“The score will take care of itself,” Maciariello said. “We have to be locked into all those details, because all those little details matter.”