After a Tyler Nelson layup cut Siena’s lead to 9-8 over Fairfield in its MAAC opener Saturday night, the Saints showed what they are capable of in the next five minutes: Nico Clareth was drilling three-pointers, Marquis Wright was finding Javion Ogunyemi for dunks, Lavon Long slashed to the rim on the next possession, when the Stags played off Wright he hit a jumper.
Meanwhile, at the other end, Brett Bisping was getting steals and rebounds, Fairfield’s guards could not get anywhere near the paint against Wright and Long, and by the time everyone looked up, Siena led 27-8 and was well on its way to a comfortable victory.
Except they weren’t. The advantage slowly dwindled, although it was back up to 16 midway through the second half before Fairfield – which to be fair, came in at 5-1 and finished fourth in the MAAC last season – suddenly exploded for a 16-0 run to tie the game. Siena eventually prevailed in the end, mostly thanks to Nico Clareth’s 33 points (although he was only 12-25 shooting), 80-73 for Jimmy Patsos’ 200th career coaching victory.
We’ll probably know more about Siena after Monday’s game at Rider. It’s also still early in the season, the Saints remain unbeaten at home (3-0 at the Times Union Center, 0-5 away from it), and they’ve been battling some minor injuries (most notably to Clareth), but should Siena be a little further along in their development at this point? Three years ago, Siena rolled to the CBI title, and Bisping, Long, and Wright all played a major part in that, while Ogunyemi was also involved. That sounds like – especially with the MAAC Tournament being played in Albany – Siena’s experience alone should make it a conference favorite.
“All these good teams we played prepared us for conference play,” Wright said. “We held our ground tonight, and we just have to keep getting better.”
It might yet, of course. Siena will be well tested by the time January rolls around, and certainly has the experience to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years (a long drought for the most rabid fanbase in the MAAC). It was on display for some of the 40 minutes Saturday in its MAAC opener.
Not all of them, though.
What else did we learn before 5,500 people in Albany:
- Fairfield’s depth is a big problem
The Runnin’ Stags haven’t been running quite as much this season, and much of the reason is they just don’t have enough players to do it. They were buoyed by the return of Jerry Johnson Jr. Saturday, who had missed four straight games, and promptly hit his first two three-pointers to start the Fairfield comeback.
But the Stags still truly only went seven deep, and that includes Johnson Jr. and Jonathan Kasibabu, neither of whom is at full-strength. Sydney Johnson is trying to get minutes out of freshmen Olivier Cadieux and Deniz Celen, Cadieux did play 20 in the win over Rider, but any time on the bench for Tyler Nelson and Curtis Cobb will be short indeed. Which is fine, but it does make it tough to continually play up-tempo. Fairfield did struggle in the half-court Saturday, which creates the ole’ Catch-22 for Johnson.
Ironically, one guy that could have helped was on the opposing bench in transfer Kevin Degnan, who decided he didn’t like Fairfield’s system and went to Siena (he will be eligible next season). With some rest coming up and no conference games until Jan. 2, Fairfield may have a chance to get healthy at least.
“Jerry isn’t 100 percent, Jonathan’s not 100 percent, Smitty’s (Steve Smith) isn’t 100 percent, but everyone’s dealing with it, Jimmy has two guys out, too,” Johnson said. “Those aren’t any excuses. It was nice to get some minutes out of Jerry, and hopefully John will get healthy and that will make us a stronger team going forward.”
2) Numbers can be weird
Congratulations again to Jimmy Patsos on securing his 200th career head coaching victory!!! pic.twitter.com/2eDIxMZs6M
— Siena Saints (@SienaSaints) December 4, 2016
It appeared that Siena dominated the offensive glass all season, especially Ogunyemi and Lavon Long, who looked like they were first to every loose ball at that end. Yet, the final stat sheet showed just 13 offensive rebounds for 30.2%, below the Saints’ season average (32.3%, 103rd) and well below where they stood last year (39.1%) when they were sixth nationally in that category, led by Ogunyemi (and were 40.0% and 47.9% in two games against Fairfield last season).
On the plus side, Siena was 345th in turnovers last season (22.2%) and are down all the way to 126th (18.3%) this time around. Some of that may be scheduling or addition by substraction, Kenny Wormley who transferred also led Siena in turnover rate last season, but some shooting inconsistencies aside, Siena has been good on offense this season. If its defense can catch up, Siena could be favorites in the MAAC.
“It’s easy to read about us and think that we’re no good, but we’re pretty good,” Patsos said. “Credit to our fanbase and our students, they were here in force. It’s easy to lose faith when you’re losing games. Fans want to see wins. I thought we learned a lot for our tour of tough games and it showed up tonight. We’ve played some tough teams (Kansas, St. Bonaventure, George Washington).”
3) Nod to Amadou Sidibe
Sidibe was hobbled in his sophomore season (2013-14) but played through it, and then was limited by tendonitis in his junior year (2014-15). He then missed all of last season, and – having graduated in May – easily could have decided that his basketball career was over and moved on with his life. He also could have transferred without sitting out, but did neither, and Fairfield might be eternally grateful.
The original plan probably wasn’t for Sidibe to get the minutes he has, but Saturday was his fourth straight double-double as he posted 12 points and 14 rebounds in 36 minutes. Sidibe is now averaging 11.2 rebounds per game, and is fifth nationally on the offensive end (18.9%, behind four players from major conferences). A great story Fairfield hopes will continue through March.
“Me and Sidibe were laughing, he was talking a little junk to our players, and we had a good little chat about that we’ve been around so long that it was like the old school MAAC,” Patsos said. “Now everyone is politically correct, so you can’t really jaw at each other. But he’s got a ton of experience and sets big screens, he’s a great player.”