Wednesday March 3rd, 2010

If there's strength in numbers, Siena's body of work over the past three seasons shows how much heavy lifting the Saints have done. They have won three straight MAAC regular-season titles, the last two conference tournaments and first-round NCAA tournament games in each of the past two years.

During that span, Siena has gone 74-25 overall and 52-8 in league play, counting the postseason. This season the Saints are 24-6 overall and 17-1 in the MAAC, featuring three seniors and two juniors in their starting five, all of whom have been around for all of those accomplishments.

The number that now looms largest for the Saints, though, is zero. As in zero RPI top-50 wins this season, which means zero chance of getting an at-large, which means zero room for error in the MAAC tournament being held on the Saints' home court in Albany, N.Y., this weekend. If they want to dance, the Saints need to turn that zero into a three, as in three straight wins for the MAAC automatic bid.

Siena is a prohibitive favorite to do that, having won its nine league home games by an average of 14.6 points, but as in any one-and-done scenario, nothing is certain.

"We know how hard it's going to be and we know what everyone thinks is going to happen, but also know how hard we're going to have to work to make it happen," said Siena coach Fran McCaffery. "This is going to be a very, very difficult three games for us."

It didn't have to be this way, but for the second straight year, Siena whiffed on all of its nonconference shots that mattered, losing at Temple, Georgia Tech, Northern Iowa and, most recently, Butler in BracketBusters. A win over Northeastern is the Saints' only victory over a team in Ken Pomeroy's top 100, and simply "beating every you should" is not the way a mid-major plays its way into the NCAAs.

"We worked all season, the summer, preseason, just to try to get a resume so we wouldn't have to rely on three days in March, but unfortunately we couldn't win some games we needed to win," said junior forward Ryan Rossiter, the team's leading rebounder at 10.8 a game. "We got better all season, and that's one thing to take away: We're a much better team than we were at the beginning of the season."

What the Saints are now is a team that's very similar to the last two versions, despite losing senior wing Kenny Hasbrouck after last season. Siena is balanced offensively and defensively. Four Saints average between 14.0 and 15.8 points per game, and the team ranks in the nation's top 60 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com.

The Saints rarely shoot the three (fewer than one out of every four shots taken, 328th in D-I), which is good because they don't make a lot of them, either (32.3 percent). They do make over half their shots from inside the arc, though, and don't turn the ball over (40th in D-I at 17.8 percent of possessions), which means they can grind out points at a fairly consistent rate.

Most notably, Siena doesn't foul much. The Saints lead the nation, barely conceding one free throw attempt for every five opponent field goal attempts. They are also ranked in the top 10 in that category the last two seasons, so this isn't a fluke. Basically, Siena takes good shots and makes you make shots. If you want to beat the Saints, you have to earn it.

If someone in the MAAC does knock them off this weekend, it certainly will be well-earned. All five Siena starters earned All-MAAC recognition this season (the first time that's happened in league history), with Rossiter plus seniors Alex Franklin and Ronald Moore all getting first-team nods.

The ultra-experienced Saints also won't get rattled. The core trio of seniors (including second-team all-MAAC shooting guard Edwin Ubiles) has combined for 336 career starts, including 125 from Moore, the quicksilver point guard who is leading the country with 7.7 assists per game and sports a 2.7-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. You probably know him better, though, for his two clutch threes against Ohio State in the first round of last season's NCAA tournament that prompted color man Bill Raftery to bellow "Onions!"

Moore hopes this weekend won't require such, um, fortitude, but he and the rest of the Saints know what's at stake: the chance to return to the NCAAs and help put a final stamp on his class's legacy as Siena's all-time best.

The Saints open against the Loyola (Md.)-Manhattan opening-round winner. If it's Loyola, the Saints immediately will face one of the two teams that stayed within single digits of them at the Times Union Center. Potentially waiting in a final could be Fairfield, which lost twice to Siena by a total of 10 points.

McCaffery noted how well this year's seniors have handled the expectations that have surrounded the program after the breakthroughs of the past two and doesn't believe the team will handle the pressure any differently the third time through the conference tourney. If the Saints can navigate the MAAC minefield, they'll get what Moore wants -- one final chance against a big-time program.

"We know we're as good as those big teams, but unfortunately we came up short all year," Moore said. We know we have another shot now to be able to prove that."

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