Aug. 12, 2003
In just two short years, the mantra has become so entrenched in the minds of those close to the program, that you would be hard pressed to come across any Siena fan, let alone player, who couldn't readily state the three words that denote Rob Lanier's call to action.
Defend. Rebound. Execute.
Often coaches use these words, but too frequently they are dismissed as clich?, and a student-athlete's talent can overcome a lapse or two in a given area. Not so with Lanier, who from the moment he was hired made clear his plan to become not just good, but dominant at each area. He began with defense, the hardest area to get young players to buy into in his opinion, and brashly predicted the Saints would finish among the top-10 teams in the nation in defensive field goal percentage in his first season. And when the dust settled on the 2001-2002 campaign, Siena remarkably ranked eighth in that category. The Saints would parlay this trademark blue-collar man-to-man defense to an unexpected NCAA appearance and victory.
Last year, Lanier's imposing frontline evolved into one of the elite rebounding teams in the nation, landing 12th in rebounding margin on the NCAA's final report. That goal was accomplished with a continued commitment to defense (the Saints finished second in the MAAC in field goal percentage) and a decided improvement in execution (the team ranked among the league leaders in scoring with 74.8 points per game). The end result? A 21-win season and another trip to the postseason, this time the National Invitation Tournament, where Siena knocked off Villanova and Western Michigan on its home floor, accenting a season that included an in-season Tournament Championship at Montana State and a win over Big East power Providence.
Enter year three of the Lanier regime. The prospects are high, as 11 players and four starters return who already know what is expected. The challenge may lie in how well the team responds to the success they have experienced. Where Siena's talented youth may have surprised some last season, this year everyone will be on the lookout as those players are called upon to play more active roles.
"I was pleased with the progress we made last season," Lanier said. "We didn't know what to expect coming into the year with the guys we had lost. You never know exactly what to expect from the young guys you have coming into your program and ours stepped in and played major roles from the start.
"We have done an excellent job the past two seasons dealing with adversity--that's been the mark of our team for the last two years," Lanier continued. "However, when we've had success, I don't think we handled that success well enough. We had [a few] three-game winning streaks during the course of the season, but we could never get over that hump. For every time we took a huge step forward it seemed inevitable that we would take a step backwards."
Still Lanier's focus remains on helping the program take the next step and he claims his aspirations are boundless. "There's obviously programs throughout the country at the mid-major level that have gone out and done some magnificent things," he said. "As a competitor you want an opportunity to experience those kinds of things. Is there something further out there for us? Is there another step we can take? That is what every coach is doing; every coach is trying to get better. Our vision includes whatever the potential for this program holds. I hope we test those limits."
The consensus among college basketball minds is that the chief differences between the mid-major and major level rest in the size, depth and skill level of the frontcourt. In Siena's case, its deep and talented frontcourt may just be what ultimately separates this year's team from the rest of the pack in the MAAC.
Each of the four major contributors to the Saints post scoring last season return seasoned and confident. Sophomore Michael Haddix enjoyed the most productive rookie season in the storied history of Siena basketball. The determined 6-6 southpaw established a new freshman scoring record averaging 13.8 points per game, and pulled down 7.2 boards per contest-the highest average by any Saint in a decade. Haddix is a creative scorer who excels with his back to the basket, and a relentless rebounder. As a freshman, the power forward led the Saints in scoring in eight games and in rebounding on 14 occasions while connecting on 52% of his field goal attempts. For his efforts, he was named to the All-MAAC Rookie Team.
Haddix's game compliments that of senior Justin Miller's perfectly. Miller figures to man the pivot when the ball is first tossed in November after starting 20 of 32 games last season. The 6-8 standout is the most seasoned member of the team, having appeared in all 89 games since his arrival in Loudonville as a freshman. Miller is a talented all-around player who has played his best basketball when the stakes are the highest. In Siena's NIT run last season, he averaged 12.3 points and a team-high 8.3 rebounds per game. This year, he will need to bring his A-game on a consistent basis, as the Saints will turn to him for scoring, defense and leadership.
Junior Brent Sniezyk will also be called upon to bring his game to the next level. Sniezyk's 6-10, 275-pound frame provides the Saints with even more muscle on the inside. Sniezyk played in all 32 games this past season, connecting on a team-best 57.3% of his field goal attempts. The strapping center's major downfall has been his propensity for foul trouble. This year he will be asked to tame his aggressive play and improve his finish around the basket so he can become a dependable option on offense and defense in the pivot.
Paul Williams is yet another big body who saw time in every game as a rookie. Williams' raw talent is apparent to any spectator, and he showed flashes of being able to develop into the dominant player the coaching staff thinks he can be in the MAAC as a freshman. Junior Gary Holle has improved tremendously since his arrival at Siena and after seeing time in 10 games last season, he could also add depth to the front court in his penultimate season.
Incoming freshman Joel Green and Tezmar Caldwell complete the Saints' talented front line, and each could usurp playing time from the veterans if their high school careers are any indication of what their Siena future's hold. Green signed early with the Saints after averaging 14 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots per game at Harriton High School as a junior, before moving on to Hargrave Military Academy this past season. Caldwell, who committed to Siena in mid-April, comes to Loudonville from Morristown High School in New Jersey where he averaged 14 points and eight rebounds as a senior.
"We received some great contributions from our front court last season, and some of our younger players really stepped up and provided consistent efforts," Lanier said. "To finish as one of the nation's best rebounding teams is testament to the resolve each player showed on the practice floor as well as their commitment to our philosophy. The challenge this year will be how dedicated each player is to getting better, and understanding that continued success cannot come without remaining focused to the task at hand."
Senior Austin Andrews and sophomore Antoine Jordan have unique skills that make them both difficult to defend and difficult to define. For this reason, their abilities are probably best suited for this category, as Andrews, while listed as a forward, relies on his lethal outside shooting ability to score, and Jordan, listed as an off guard, is an aggressive rebounder who creates his own scoring chances with his elusive athleticism.
Andrews is perhaps the best pure shooter on the team and is another of eight returnees who saw action in each of the Saints 32 games last year. The 6-8 talent is most effective on the kick-out pass when his feet are set and he can size up his shot. He connected on better than 40% of his 117 attempts last season.
Jordan enjoyed a sensational first year in the Green and Gold, finishing fourth on the team with nine points per game and third in rebounding with 5.3 boards per contest. The versatile threat also led the team in three-point shooting and checked in second with 75 assists (3 per game). After starting the last 19 games a year ago, Jordan appears a mainstay in the regular rotation for the next three years.
"Austin and Antoine are special players who are difficult match-ups for the opposition," Lanier said. "We will need each to elevate their game this season if we are to reach the expectations we have in mind."
While the Saints return a pair of skilled guards who contributed mightily to last season's success, the question that has haunted Lanier since his arrival in Loudonville remains unsettled at the outset. Although Siena has enjoyed benchmark triumphs the past two seasons, these achievements have come despite the lack of a true point guard. One would suspect these accomplishments will be difficult to duplicate and even harder to build upon until one is found.
A logical option when camp breaks is senior Jamal Jackson who was brought in from Des Moines Area Community College in Iowa last season for the express purpose of addressing this need. Although Jackson experienced some growing pains in his first season of major college basketball, he did see time as the signal caller in each game, and his off-season works have the coaching staff confident in his progression.
Junior Tommy Mitchell was one of the most improved players in the league last season, upping his scoring average nearly nine points per game. An explosive athlete, and complete guard, Mitchell was third on the squad with 13.6 points per game, and spent much of the season running the Siena offense. While the Saints are probably better suited with Mitchell off the ball, he is a capable solution to the point-by-committee scenario Siena may be faced with as the season opens. Either way, much of the Siena offense will go through Mitchell, who will likely be a preseason all-conference selection in late October.
Freshman Mike Beers also adds support to a backcourt that will be counted on for scoring if the Saints are to open up their offense. Beers was the first recruit to commit to Lanier, verbally agreeing to play at Siena as a junior in high school. He comes in as an accomplished shooter and after polishing his skills at prep school last year, his marksmanship from the outside may be just what the doctor ordered to balance the Saints' attack.
"Our backcourt came a long way last year in terms of scoring and confidence," Lanier commented. "Early in the season, teams were attacking our guards and daring us to beat full court presses and traps. Our players responded as the season went on and by the end of the year we had put those problems behind us. We have enjoyed a great deal of success the past two seasons without a consistent point guard presence, but clearly we don't want to move forward expecting that to continue. The experiences the returning players have been through should go a long way to addressing this concern as should the addition of our incoming recruits."
The mid-August trip to Mexico should do wonders for the Saints' early-season preparation. "We get ten days of practice in preparation for the trip, which will give us a great opportunity to get back on the court and work on some of the things we think will help us improve." All players who were eligible to play on last season's team, including redshirt Freshman David Ryan, will be able to play in Mexico. "I think that will really go a long way towards helping us in preparation for next season," Lanier added.
When the Saints get back to the United States, it won't be long before preseason practice resumes and sights are shifted to the arduous regular-season schedule in store. Last season, the Saints embarked on arguably their toughest schedule in school history, finishing 21-11. The team did have the benefit of 17 home dates, backed by an average of over 7,300 fans per game-the 66th highest total in the nation and fourth best among mid-majors. This year, many of those dates will be returned and even more daunting assignments await including a date at National Champion Syracuse on December 20.
The major challenges, however, may rest within the Saints own conference, where five teams may rank among the region's best when all is said and done. Regardless, the MAAC is certainly in better shape than it has been in some time, as defending champion Manhattan returns nearly all of its components (including defending Player of the Year Luis Flores) from last year's NCAA team. Niagara and Fairfield also return their key cogs and appear primed for a run at the championship as does ever-tough Iona, which adds a highly-regarded recruiting class featuring Syracuse transfer Deshaun Williams.
The remaining portion of the non-conference docket includes home games with Fordham of the Atlantic 10 and Toledo of the mid-American Conference. Siena will travel to Duquesne to start a series with the Dukes on November 29 before heading east to revenge-focused Providence of the Big East. On December 2. The highlight of the regular-season last year may have been Siena's 89-81 win over the Friars in Albany. After the Syracuse game, the Saints will return trips to Delaware and Northern Iowa to round out the calendar year.
"We are committed to scheduling ambitiously year in and year out for our fans, but more importantly the development of our players," Lanier said. "We feel that the experiences we gain in our non-conference games will have us prepared for MAAC play, where every game is a war."