Thursday, August 17, 2017

Point guard issue one of many questions Siena hopes to solve this season

Replacing four 1,000-point scorers will be no easy task, but Jimmy Patsos is hopeful that Siena's returning players and new crop of incoming freshmen will keep Saints among MAAC contenders. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

Siena's run to last season's Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship game was somewhat unexpected, as the Saints relied on Nico Clareth's second half bonanza to upset regular season champion Monmouth and earn a date with Iona for an NCAA Tournament berth, where the Gaels narrowly emerged victorious on Siena's home floor in a fierce overtime battle.

The Saints' quartet of 1,000-point scoring seniors has since graduated, with each signing professional contracts overseas, leaving some uncertainty in the Capital Region as the MAAC landscape has been significantly altered heading into the 2017-18 season. Yet through the question marks, there is still confidence abound at the school that remains one of the league's flagship members.

"Everyone's going to pick us sixth or seventh, and that's fine," head coach Jimmy Patsos remarked as he prepares for his fifth season at the helm of the Saints, whom he guided to a College Basketball Invitational championship in his first campaign as Mitch Buonaguro's successor. "I think that's a good thing for us. On paper, that's where we should be. I'm looking forward to coaching this team. I think we're going to get better as the year goes."

Replacing the likes of Brett Bisping, Lavon Long, Javion Ogunyemi and Marquis Wright will be difficult both on paper and on the floor given their immeasurable contributions to Siena basketball over the past four seasons; five in Bisping's case, but in their place stands an emerging core anchored by the flamboyant and charismatic Clareth that will be counted on to be the next wave of standard-bearers for the Saints, who are still seeking a return to their perch among the MAAC's elite after a 69-68 record over the past four seasons.

"Those guys did a great job," said Patsos of his now-departed senior class. "They never lost faith and they never lost confidence despite our tough start. Hopefully Nico and (Ahsante) Shivers learn from them, Kevin Degnan's got a little experience even though he sat out. One thing about the MAAC is you have to prove it. No one's going to give you anything."

Of the many dilemmas surrounding Siena heading into the year, there is perhaps none bigger than who will be the ultimate successor to Wright at the point guard spot. Roman Penn, who enrolled at the school in January and had the opportunity to practice with the team during the spring semester last year, appears to have the inside track, but incoming freshman Jordan Horn is poised to ensure that there will be another type of race held in the Albany area this season alongside those of the equine variety at nearby Saratoga Race Course.

"The thing about Marquis is he played the whole game, took the most shots, did all that stuff," Patsos recollected with regard to Wright. "We're trying to replace a guy that got us points, assists, great player, great leader, played a ton of minutes. That's tough to replace."

"Roman's hungry," said Patsos of Penn, a 5-foot-11 Indiana native whose early enrollment at Siena afforded him the opportunity to learn the Saints' system from Wright and get a feel for what is to be expected of him as he throws himself into the fire. "That proved to be a valuable thing, just to see the competitiveness of the MAAC. These kids don't know. These incoming freshmen have no idea how hard a league the MAAC is, how above the rim it is, great offensive teams, great coaches. Roman saw it for 17 games. He saw Iona's guards. When he saw Justin Robinson, I remember yelling at him at halftime, saying 'Hey, I told you how good he is! See how good he is now?'"

Penn and Horn will see immediate playing time in the backcourt, where they will join Clareth, Shivers, and Fairfield transfer Kevin Degnan in the starting five, according to Patsos. Evan Fisher and incoming freshman Prince Oduro, who helped Canada win the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup gold medal last month, will round out the Saints' rotation alongside sophomore Khalil Richard, with Sammy Friday and Tom Huerter, Jr. competing for minutes as well. All in all, the potential for growth is there with a team composed of holdovers from a deep run through the MAAC tournament, plus a handful of underclassmen poised to take the next step, a combination that Patsos believes has Siena in a favorable position heading into their three-game tour of Canada at the end of the month, as well as the Saints' opener against College of Charleston in November.

"It's one thing to be the sixth option, the fourth option, third option," he said. "It's one thing to play 24 minutes. Now you have to be the guys, and I think it's going to be very interesting for us this year. That's why we'll be picked sixth or seventh, but the league's wide open. I think Iona, everybody's going to concede that they're the No. 1 team, but after that, I'm interested to see. There's a lot of room for growth, a lot of opportunities for some guys that didn't play."

"What do I think? Nico and Shivers, they'll be exciting, but we might be a little more balanced," Patsos intimated. "I think we're going to be a lot better in December and January than we are in November, and we hope to be better in February and March, clearly. There's a lot of positive energy. We have a very hungry look. Some guys want to prove some stuff. Not one guy's going to have the ball in his hands all the time, and that's what makes me nervous. But we stay positive, and the future's bright."

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