Sitting at 7-6 in MAAC play following a loss to Canisius in early February, the Siena Saints seemed destined for a middling finish. But the return of star sophomore Nico Clareth and an emphatic win over Iona in New Rochelle propelled the Saints to a 5-2 finish and into a third-place tie with the Gaels at 12-8 in the final standings.
“That might have been the biggest game of the year,” head coach Jimmy Patsos said of the win at Iona. “It wasn’t just because we brought Nico back, but everybody played well and our bench was good.”
Due to Iona’s sweep of #2 seed Saint Peter’s, the Gaels won the tiebreaker with the Saints, leaving Siena as the #4 seed in this weekend’s conference tournament where they will square off against #5 seed Fairfield Saturday night at 9:30 p.m. in a contest televised on ESPNU.
Player to watch: #15 Nico Clareth, So. G
The Saints are powered by a quartet of seniors, headlined by point guard Marquis Wright. The Maryland native paces Siena with 16.5 points per game, and his 4.9 assists per contest rank third in the league. The frontcourt trio of Javion Ogunyemi, Lavon Long, and Brett Bisping check in at 13.4, 13.0, and 12.2 ppg respectively.
Bisping’s 9.6 rebounds per game are tops in the league and earned him all-MAAC Second Team recognition along with Wright, but it was Long’s emergence at the end of the season that most impressed his head coach. The swingman averaged 15.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game over the team’s final nine contests.
“I’d like to give a little extra credit Lavon Long,” Patsos said on a league conference call Monday. “In January and February, he was just energized, outstanding, willing to play defense, and hitting big shots.”
Siena’s size in the paint has helped them lead the league in offensive rebounding percentage. According to KenPom.com, the Saints grab 36.2% of opportunities on the offensive glass, and have had success scoring inside arc as well.
Saturday’s matchup will pit the league’s two most efficient 2-point shooting teams against one another. Fairfield’s 52.6% average inside the arc leads the MAAC, while Siena’s mark of 51.2% checks in second-best. The teams also own the third and fourth most efficient defenses during conference play.
The enigmatic Clareth owns the talent to be one of the league’s best players for years to come, but took a personal leave of absence in mid-January and was away from the team for seven games. Last year’s MAAC Sixth Man of the Year and member of the all-MAAC Rookie Team, Clareth underwent offseason knee surgery in June and has missed a total of 11 games this year.
His return at Iona undoubtedly bolstered the squad, as they took care of every opponent not named Monmouth down the stretch. In the seven games since his return, Clareth has averaged 15.7 ppg, and his 13.6 per game average for the year ranks second on the Saints.
“When he first left, our team kind of rallied around the situation,” Patsos said of Clareth and his leave of absence. “We played well, but then we clearly ran out of a little bit of gas. Nico’s energy has been great. He’s basically a starter, we just bring him off the bench because he flourished in that role last year.
Despite entering the year with high expectations for their senior class, the Saints struggled to a 5-11 overall record out of the gate. The team lost its first ten road games of the season, but included in that schedule were trips to Kansas, UNC Asheville, St. Bonaventure, and Florida Gulf Coast.
“We ended up I believe with the 28th toughest non-conference schedule in the country,” Patsos said. “Clearly the toughest non-conference schedule by the MAAC and I think part of it helped, but it was a tough hurdle.”
Siena finally picked up its first road win of the season with a 63-54 victory over quarterfinal opponent Fairfield in Bridgeport on January 15. Since then, the Saints have captured four more road victories, but will not have to worry about a hostile environment as this March as the league’s tournament is once again contested on their home floor at the Times Union Center in Albany.
That win in Bridgeport was the first of Clareth’s seven-game leave of absence, and it was Bisping who led the squad with 16 points. In the teams’ first meeting back on the opening weekend of December, it was Clareth who led the way with a career-high 33 points in the Saints’ 80-73 victory.
“Nico’s learned a lot from last year,” Patsos added of his sophomore. “He wants to win a MAAC title. We want to win, but we have to beat Fairfield and they’re hot. He’s engaged in what’s going on, and when he’s engaged, he’s one of the best players in the league.”
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.