The last time Niagara and Siena met, the Saints swept the season series from the Purple Eagles with a 74-70 road victory.
However, since then both teams have been trending in vastly different directions. Siena has won three of its last 12 since that meeting and, after losing seven of eight following the meeting, the Purple Eagles have won their last four games to close out the regular season. They enter the tournament carrying the longest active win streak amongst MAAC teams.
“We made progress, especially through the second half of the conference season,” Niagara head coach Chris Casey said. “Our players improved, our numbers improved, our defense improved. I thought our chemistry improved, so our young guys started to come together a little bit.”
Since that point, freshman Dominique Reid has burst onto the scene — averaging 13.8 ppg and 8.2 rpg over the team’s final nine games. Not only has Reid become the consistent rebounding presence and forward the Purple Eagles desperately needed, he has started to build on his game, draining open mid-range jumpers.
Sophomore Emile Blackman has also broken out since the last meeting with the Saints. The 6’4″ LIU Post transfer has averaged 17 ppg over the teams final 12 games and ranks 11th in scoring (13.6 ppg) in the conference.
“I think he’s been terrific, in my mind he should be on that all-league team,” Casey said. “I think he’s done a lot of really good things for us, particularly in the second half of the conference season.”
The Purple Eagles went 4-4 in February and closed the regular season with a 57-56 win over Fairfield, meanwhile the Saints have struggled since that meeting. Siena enters the MAAC tournament on a five-game losing streak, the longest in Jimmy Patsos’ two-year tenure at the program.
“I have to get my guys to believe that, because we’re really close, not to give up,” Patsos said. “We’re in every game, in the last four minutes, three minutes, two minutes, I tell you 80% of the games this year we’ve had a chance to win, but this is a grind it out tough league. We have to understand that we have to execute down the stretch to win in the MAAC.”
In that time the Saints defense has sunk to the bottom of the conference, allowing 73.7 ppg and allowing opponents to shoot 44.5% from the field, good for ninth in the 11 team league.
“All I know is, the way players played in our arena this year, I know they’re going to be happy to be walking back into there,” Patsos said. “They all shot lights out against us.”
Siena was picked second in the conference in the preseason, but stumbled this year due to injuries. Senior Imoh Silas missed the entire season with an ACL injury and have been without junior Brett Bisping since early December, due to a toe injury. Patsos said that he held out their senior leading scorer Rob Poole (14.2 ppg) from their final conference game at Monmouth to rest his hurt ankle, which will require surgery after the season is over.
“It’s going to take all we got, 40 minutes I think, to beat a really good Niagara team,” Patsos said. “You can’t look at the next game.”
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2014-15 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.