This is the first in a series we are going to start running again here at March Madness All Season. We did it the past two seasons 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. Like last year, the First up: Siena
Siena has been one of the mid-major surprises in each of the last two NCAA Tournaments, defeating Ohio State in the first round of last year’s tournament and blowing out Vanderbilt in the first round as a No. 13 seed two seasons ago. As a result, the Saints have been a preseason darling in a variety of publications over the past couple of seasons, although the hype hit a new high this season and is beginning to build up again. 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, struggling for much of the first couple of months. The Saints lost to the four best teams they played – St. John’s, Georgia Tech, Northern Iowa and Temple, by an average of almost 11 points per game – and picked up only one remotely good win, a home victory over Northeastern. However, each of the four losses came away from home, and Siena has been rolling every since. They have won 15 of their 21 games by double-figures and have been victorious in 15 straight games since starting the season 6-4. Siena is 14-0 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and has opened up a four-game lead on second-place Iona with just four conference games remaining. The Saints head to Butler for the Bracket Busters event.
The Saints are led by their outstanding perimeter group. 6-6 Edwin Ubiles came into the season as the favorite to win MAAC Player of the Year honors, but he struggled mightily to open the season and has dealt with a lingering shoulder injury this season. Still, 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. Despite his inconsistencies and injuries, he is still capable of carrying Siena to victory. Ronald Moore is one of the best passers in the country and ranks near the nation’s leaders in assists. While he doesn’t score as much as his perimeter mates, Moore’s distribution skills are second-to-none and he takes excellent care of the ball. Clarence Jackson has taken over for Kenny Hasbrouck in the starting lineup, and has provided outside shooting and is a player capable of getting hot from deep and really filling it up. He has scored at least 20 points on eight different occasions. Sixth man Kyle Downey broke his foot in late January, leaving Kyle Griffin has the primary perimeter player off the bench. Griffin scored 12 points against Manhattan earlier this season.
What separates Siena from most mid-majors is its balance, as the Saints have plenty of talent up front as well. Alex Franklin is the team’s leading scorer and second-leading rebounder. He is extremely effective from the field and gets to the foul line at a very high rate. Franklin does all of his damage from inside the paint, and his 6-5 size does not hinder him at all against most competition. However, like last season, he has struggled somewhat against more talented teams, averaging 14.0 points in the four losses. Ryan Rossiter is Franklin’s bookend in the paint; he has been absolutely dominant this season, averaging a double-double. Furthermore, he has racked up double-doubles in 11 of his last 13 games, and scoring at least 15 points in nine of his last 10 contests. Rossiter is a beast on the backboards and is very effective on the offensive end. Off the bench, Owen Wignot has started at times this season when Ubiles has sat out with an injury, but he has not been overly effective in conference play. Freshman O.D. Anosike is a very good rebounder who makes the most of his 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, not allowing any easy shots inside the arc and guarding the three-point line closely. Additionally, Siena is smart on that side of the ball, ranking first in the country in free-throw rate. Offensively, they take care of the ball, which is no surprise, considering Moore has the ball in his hands the majority of the time. Despite their perimeter-oriented offense, the Saints are very effective from two-point range, ranking 24th 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 off 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 wins over Vanderbilt and Ohio State in the last two NCAA Tournaments show that they can win if they get the right match-up. A team without dominant 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.