Saints dancing on a bigger stage
Siena players have tasted the big-time, but this is a whole new level
Light, cameras . . . stage fright.
Playing in the NCAA tournament is in an entirely different universe from, say, a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference road game at Saint Peter’s in Jersey City, N.J., with 1,200 people in the wooden bleachers, and the bulk of those fans rooting for the visiting team.
Most of the players on the Vanderbilt roster have answered the blinding glare of the spotlight at the Big Dance; Siena’s roster, made up mostly of sophomores and freshmen, has not.
Beating 26-7 Vanderbilt from the mighty Southeastern Conference will be difficult enough. The Siena camp also has to wonder how the Saints will respond to the pressure and extra attention, as they get ready for their first-round game against the Commodores at 7:20 Friday night. One thing in Siena’s favor is that, despite its youth, the Saints are used to playing teams from bigger conferences and facing the demands of the media.
“If you’ve had success in the NCAA tournament and played in it, that’s helpful, because it’s different,” Siena head coach Fran McCaffery said. “I’ve been there enough. That’s one thing I’ve tried to get our guys to understand, that it’s different, even from the attention they’ve received in the last week. But even when you get there, it’ll be clear that this is a whole other level.
“They seem to [be able to handle it]. But we have not been in this situation before, so I guess we’re going to find out.”
There’s plenty of precedent that shows that small schools can deal with the pressure of the tournament, even in Siena’s own history. The Saints knocked off Stanford in 1989, and no one on the 2005 Vermont roster, including Scotia’s Josh Duell, a transfer to Siena, went into its first-round game against Syracuse like wide-eyed bumpkins.
For a mid-major program at a small
school, Siena gets more than its share of regular coverage from local TV stations and three newspapers.
McCaffery said that’s one reason the Saints should be comfortable with the carefully scripted routines and schedules they’ll face in Tampa, Fla., this week.
The Saints left Albany International Airport for Tampa Wednesday at 8:45 a.m. They were scheduled for practice at Tampa Preparatory School at 4 p.m., and had interview time scheduled at the media center hotel before their
5:55 p.m. practice today.
Except for the week leading up to the UAlbany game this season, McCaffery has kept his practices open to the media and general public all season, going so far as to make sure that there are some folding chairs on the floor for the regulars.
“The last two times I went as a head coach, we didn’t get any attention from the media, really, at all,” McCaffery said. “There might be a writer or two at a game, occasionally a camera at practice, and then all of a sudden, there’s five cameras filming your bus leaving to go to the airport, those kinds of things. It’s very eye-opening. We get covered like a high-major program, so our players are used to cameras every day at practice, and they’ve been up on a podium before. We’ll be OK.”
Once the game starts, no one expects the Saints to be in awe of Vanderbilt, even though the Commodores are bigger, have been successful in one of the strongest conferences in the country and have experienced players who went to the Sweet 16 last year and came within one point of making it to the Elite Eight before losing to Georgetown on Jeff Green’s bank shot with 2.5 seconds left.
Games against teams like Memphis, Stanford, Syracuse and Saint Joseph’s have given Siena the confidence — without cockiness — to play with anyone.
“Coach Mac set that up for a reason, so we’d be ready to play to play in the NCAA tournament,” Duell said. “Fortunately enough, we got a team we can compete with.”
“The coaches did a great job with the schedule, putting us up against big-type teams,” point guard Ronald Moore said. “It’s definitely made us a better team, putting us in hard situations.”
“I think we’re very respectful of who we’re getting ready to play, but at the same time, I don’t think we fear anybody,” McCaffery said.
McCaffery said it’s imperative to find minutes for his freshmen in the first half. He wants to give them a taste of the action, in case he needs any of them for minutes in the second half, and it will be difficult to ask his key players to play all of the second half if they don’t get a breather in the first half.
“I’ll play all my guys in the first half, nine, 10 guys, and then we’ll go from there, depending on the circumstances,” he said. “I want to be able to play my key guys 19, 20 minutes in the second half if I have to, but at the same time, you can’t throw a guy in there in the second half if he hasn’t played in the first half. They have to get their feet wet, because we’re going to need some of them, especially with their size. But I think they’ll be fine. They got a ton of minutes, and [Ryan] Rossiter started a bunch of those games. Now, I don’t consider anybody a freshman anymore.”
Winning is the most important thing, but McCaffery also wants his players to be able to enjoy and appreciate the mind-boggling spectacle they’re about to experience.
“Sometimes, it’s hard for fans to understand that they’re just kids,” he said. “They have other things going on in their lives. There is a lot of pressure. And we require them to remember a lot of information and pretty much control their lives from Labor Day until now.
“But it’s also an opportunity to experience something that no `other students get to do, and it’s something that they’ll remember forever. That’s one of the reasons it is so popular, because you don’t know how these kids are going to react. Why are there upsets? There’s going to be game-winning shots, there’s going to be shots that are missed, there’s going to be drama. What you want is to be part of it in some ways.”
SAINTS 15TH IN POLL
Siena was ranked No. 15 in the CollegeInsider.com’s top 25 mid-major poll on Tuesday. Butler, Davidson and Drake held the top three spots, respectively.
The mid-major top 25 ranks schools from the MAAC, America East, Atlantic Sun, Big Sky, Big South, Big West, Colonial, Horizon, Independents, Ivy League, Mid-American, Mid-Eastern, Missouri Valley, Northeast, Ohio Valley, Patriot, Southern, Southland, Southwestern, Summit League, Sun Belt and West Coast conferences.
Loyola head coach Jimmy Patsos is the chairman of the 31-man voting panel, which includes UAlbany’s Will Brown.