Saints confident, loose, poised for an upset
TAMPA, Fla. Head coach Fran McCaffery’s young kids were running barefoot around the court.
Edwin Ubiles ripped a tomahawk dunk, and someone’s understated commentary amounted to “That was a good one.”
Josh Duell answered a challenge and made a deep three as the buzzer sounded to end practice, then he grinned at the bench and did a little shimmy as he walked off.
It could have been a scene from the Alumni Recreation Center on the sleepy little Siena campus in Loudonville.
It wasn’t. Not even close.
The 13th-seeded Saints made themselves at home at the 20,500-seat St. Pete Times Forum on Thursday; today, they’ll try to send Vanderbilt home in the NCAA tournament.
In a first round short on upsets so far, Siena (22-10) is being picked by many to knock off the Commodores (26-7), despite what, on paper, looks like a victory for Vanderbilt.
If the Saints are feeling any tension over the pressure of playing on one of the biggest stages in all of sports against a bigger team from the powerful Southeastern Conference, it wasn’t showing.
“You’re playing against the best teams with the best players and the best coaches in the country,” senior Tay Fisher said. “I’m happy to say that Siena is one of those teams right now. But we’ve got to go out there and prove it.”
They’ll get their chance at 7:20 tonight in the first game of the second double-header in Tampa. The winner will face the Clemson-Villanova winner on Sunday with a chance to go to the Sweet 16 in Detroit.
Vanderbilt almost made it to the Elite Eight last year, has the SEC player of the year in Shan Foster and is ranked 16th in the country, so the No. 4
Commodores are a little mystified that so many are picking Siena. In the first round last year, Vanderbilt beat George Washington, 77-44, the biggest margin by a sixth seed over an 11 in the history of the tournament.
The Commodores answered questions about the lack of respect they get with grace and resignation on Thursday.
“Yeah, we’re kind of confused as to why we keep getting picked [for an upset],” forward Ross Neltner said.
“That’s something that I haven’t been able to understand, either,” Foster said. “We’ve won 26 games. We’re not a No. 4 seed by miracle, you know.”
It wouldn’t be a miracle if Siena wins, though.
In the type of matchup that the Saints have seen before, Vanderbilt has a phenomenal shooter from three-point range (Foster) and a talented center (A.J. Ogilvy) who is bigger than anyone in Siena’s front line.
The smaller Saints counter with a running, driving style with multiple shooters surrounding an undersized but powerful and relentless forward, Alex Franklin.
The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champions have won six straight and have cranked up their press in recent games, which should be an important factor tonight.
After four days of preparation, Vanderbilt knows that.
“We need our key people to stay out of foul trouble, we need to get off to a good start, we have to go up and down a little bit,” McCaffery said. “That’s how we play. Then all of a sudden, you’re halfway through the game, you see where you are and take it from there.”
“The thing I like about their team is they’ve got really good balance,” Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings said. “They’ve got three guys that can get 25 to 30 points, which most teams are happy to have one guy that can do that.
“I think Ronald Moore is a terrific player for them. So they’ve got really good point guard play, and three guys that can just blitz you on any given night.”
Stallings was referring to Ubiles, Franklin and Kenny Hasbrouck.
Ubiles’ single-game scoring high was 37 points, Hasbrouck scored 35 at Marist and Franklin ripped Boise State for 30 points and 18 rebounds.
Foster, though, can counterbalance at least one of them, and Alex Gordon is another excellent three-point shooter.
Because Foster is 6-foot-6, Siena will try to use Ubiles to guard him, but the 6-3 Hasbrouck will probably get that assignment at times, too.
“He has deep range, and he’s a senior, so I’m pretty sure he’s a very crafty player, and he knows what it’s like to play in a tournament like this,” Ubiles said. “I’m going to try to limit his touches and not give him any open looks.
“One thing I know I have to do is pressure him. I have to make him put the ball on the floor and see what he can do off the dribble. I’m going to start on him and hopefully, I can bother him with my length and athleticism, and then also we can put Kenny on him and use Kenny’s strength and quickness.”
Then there’s Ogilvy, who has been compared to Robin Lopez of Stanford and Jason Thompson of Rider, among Siena opponents.
During the Thursday shootaround, the 6-foot-11, 250-pound freshman from Sydney, Australia, displayed a good medium-range jumper and the ability to catch anything that comes into the post.
The important thing for Siena, McCaffery said, was to prevent Ogilvy from getting it deep, because then he’ll be just about impossible to stop.
The Saints don’t really have a shot blocker, although freshman Ryan Rossiter is good at bothering shots. He and Cory Magee are expected to spell the 6-7 Duell against Ogilvy.
“He’s a lot to handle, but collectively I think we can all take care of him,” Rossiter said. “Back to the basket, he’s real strong if you give him deep position. From the foul line, he can drive the ball a little bit. He’s real strong with the ball, he’s a great rebounder, he’s got soft hands, so we’ll try to deny him that position and collectively we’re going to try to wear him down.”
“I’m going to have to mix up the coverage, deny it from the front, come from behind,” Duell said. “But it’s really going to be a team effort.”
This is just the Saints’ fourth trip to the NCAA Division I tournament, and a victory would echo back to Siena’s win over Stanford in 1989.
“When you look at any seed from 12 on down, getting here is a major accomplishment,” McCaffery said. “I think the challenge for us is to make sure our players know and understand that we feel like we can win the game.”
Rossiter and his family have a tricky, but fun, predicament. His brother, Steve, is a sophomore at 10th-seeded Davidson, which will play Gonzaga today in Raleigh, N.C., in the first round of the Midwest Regional. Siena and Davidson would each have to make the Elite Eight to play each other.
“His game is at 12:25, so we’ll have a shootaround and hopefully have some time on our own and check it out,” Rossiter said.
His parents are in Tampa for Ryan’s game.
Siena has a 20-minute practice at 9:20 this morning. . . .
Because teams were taking the floor as soon as another team’s practice was over on Thursday, Siena assistant coach Mitch Buonagura didn’t perform his post-practice ritual of making a halfcourt shot before anyone is allowed to leave.
He usually makes it in the first few attempts, but not always.
“There’s been a couple 15’s, 16’s [attempts] where he started getting winded, and we were worrying whether he could get it there, but he gets competitive, too,” McCaffery said. “He’ll make it before we leave. They won’t let him.”