Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Mid-Major Madness: Siena
This is the first in a series we are going to start running again here at March Madness All Season. We did it last year from late January to the end of the season. "Mid-Major Madness" is simply a weekly column chronicling the small-conference sleepers that I feel have the best shot at pulling an upset or two during the NCAA Tournament. The only real criterion is that a team has to be a projected 11 seed or lower in the Big Dance and from outside the major conferences. We looked at all the non-BCS conferences and teams last week, but these are the real sleepers for March. First up: Siena.
Siena was one of the mid-major surprises of last year's NCAA Tournament, blowing out Vanderbilt in the first round as a No. 13 seed before falling to Villanova in the second round. As a result, the Saints were a preseason darling in a variety of preseason publications (I personally had Siena as my "surprise" team come March) because they returned nearly every key player from that group. Siena has all the ingredients to pull off an upset or two in the NCAA Tournament; it just depends on the match-up.
Siena did not live up to its lofty preseason hype in the non-conference portion of the campaign, losing three of its first five games and losing to every high-major team it played. The Saints fell to Tennessee, Oklahoma State, Pittsburgh and Kansas, as well as Wichita State. The losses to the four "name" teams were by an average of more than 12 points per game. However, they are undefeated in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, starting off 12-0. They are beating conference teams by an average of 10.5 points per game. Furthermore, the non-conference season wasn't without solid victories, as Siena beat Saint Joseph's, Buffalo, Cornell and Boise State. With just two difficult road games left in the conference, Siena has a chance to run the table in the MAAC. The Saints host Northern Iowa in the Bracket Busters event.
The Saints are led by their outstanding perimeter group. 6-3 Kenny Hasbrouck and 6-6 Edwin Ubiles are the leading scorers on the team and are both capable of carrying the team to victory. Hasbrouck is one of the better guards in the mid-major world; he can shoot the three effectively and also drive to the basket. He is a capable defender who picks up steals and also contributes rebounds and assists. He has scored at least 13 points in 12 straight games. Ubiles is very difficult to defend due to his size and skill-set. He can score in variety of ways. He is also a smart defender who doesn't commit fouls but racks up steals and blocks. Ubiles has been inconsistent offensively at times this year and his shooting numbers are down from last season, but he is still explosive and capable of big nights. Ronald Moore is the least heralded of the three starters, but he might be the most important one. He is a terrific passer who is amongst the mid-major assist leaders. He is also a decent rebounder and scorer who can knock down three-pointers. Sixth man Clarence Jackson is an excellent scorer who can heat up in a hurry. He averages 8.0 points per game in just over 14 minutes a contest. Freshman Kyle Downey also is a decent point producer off the bench.
Siena has plenty of balance, as the Saints have talent up front as well. Alex Franklin is a returning starter from last year. Although he is undersized at 6-5, he is a very good inside scorer who is a beast on the backboards. He is averaging 14.7 points and 7.3 rebounds over his past six games, a slight increase on his season numbers. He has struggled against some of the more talented teams Siena has faced, though. Ryan Rossiter stepped into the lineup this season, and has made the most of it. He is the leading rebounder on the team, and is averaging 9.2 boards per game over the past six games. Rossiter is an efficient offensive player who shoots over 60 percent from the field. Off the bench, Josh Duell started last season and contributes. Freshman Owen Wignot also sees minutes.
Siena is an up-tempo team that likes to get up and down the court and score in a hurry. The Saints force turnovers defensively and thrive off steals and fast-break points. They are very solid defensively in the half-court, guarding the three-point line closely and not allowing any easy shots inside the arc. Additionally, Siena is smart on that side of the ball, ranking sixth in the country in free-throw rate. Offensively, they take care of the ball, which is no surprise, considering Moore and Hasbrouck have the ball in their hands the majority of the time. Despite their perimeter-oriented offense, the Saints are very effective from two-point range, ranking fifth in the country in percentage of points from inside the arc. Still, they can knock down the three when necessary.
Like I said earlier, Siena has all the pieces necessary to pull of a first-round upset in the Big Dance. The Saints have terrific guards, they take care of the ball, and they have inside balance to compete with the bigger teams in the major conferences. They have lost to the four best teams they have played so far this season, but the blowout over Vanderbilt last season shows that they can win if they get the right match-up. A team without very good inside players that also struggles against pressure defense would be the ideal victim for Siena. I can certainly see this team advancing to the second round once again.