Things don’t always go according to plan.
It was trendy to assume Siena would take another leap forward in year two of the Jimmy Patsos’ era after the fiery leader orchestrated the second greatest win improvement in all of Division I and a CBI Championship in his first season on the job.
The Saints were picked second in the 2015 MAAC Preseason Coaches’ Poll (after being picked 10th the year before), and had 99% of their scoring and minutes returning.
Fans of Siena basketball were hopeful for good reason, but a series of unfortunate events quickly turned optimism to dismay.
Imposing big man Imoh Silas tore his ACL in preseason workouts. Brett Bisping, one of the most improved players in all of college basketball as a sophomore, was lost for the year in game six with a toe injury. Just like that, Siena’s starting frontcourt was erased before the buzzer sounded in the first conference game.
There were high expectations for transfer guard Patrick Cole, but he was suspended, and ultimately never returned to the program after averaging 8.4 points in seven games played.
It was the imperfect storm, and Siena struggled to an 11-20 record, tying for eighth in the MAAC. The season was not a total loss. Point guard Marquis Wright led the conference in assists and was second in steals, affirming his place as one of the top playmakers in the league. Local product Javion Ogunyemi did his best Bisping impersonation, improving his scoring and rebounding exponentially from his freshman year.
Siena finished the year strong, blasting Niagara in the First Round of the MAAC Tournament, and taking regular-season champion Iona to the wire before falling 74-71 on AJ English’s contested three-pointer in the final minute of the quarterfinals.
The biggest takeaway from last season may have been the lessons learned on and off the court, an education Patsos benefited from as much as the players.
“Siena is a great program,” Patsos said. “What I didn’t know was the demands of the job when I took it. Siena basketball is really a strong, strong brand. I’ve learned to accept that, and also to grow with it. Nine years at Loyola was a lot different than two years at Siena. We get the publicity, the attention, the intensity of the fans – and I like that. It’s my third year, and I’m learning the job. It’s taking a little bit of time, but I’m growing into it.”
The Saints’ growth will continue without Poole and Evan Hymes who graduated in May after combining to score 2,831 career points, sixth most for any tandem in program history.
Still, there’s plenty of reasons to think Siena can get back to its winnings ways quickly, starting with three big ones up front.
“To have Brett Bisping back means the world to us,” Patsos said. “Brett is the heart and soul of our team. I think he does a tremendous amount of leading for us. He gives you such an edge on the court in practice.”
“I learned (Patsos) really wants to get the most out of us,” Bisping said. “He wants us to reach our full potential, and that’s where his emotion comes from. He’s always looking for different ways to motivate you.”
Bisping figures to be joined up front by Silas, who also had plenty of time to work on the mental side of his game last season. Silas appeared in all 38 games and made 32 starts for Siena’s CBI Championship team. The value of his return to the rotation can’t be measured in a box score.
“Imoh is a game-changer,” Patsos said. “He can block shots, so now you can press. Now you can do a lot of things, because when a guy takes a bad shot he can block it. I think he should lead the league in blocked shots this year.”
Ogunyemi, who transferred to Boston University after the spring semester, but returned to enroll at Siena in the fall, found out he would be eligible to play this season on October 30. His presence solidifies perhaps the top frontcourt in the conference, and makes Siena a legitimate title contender on paper. Ogunyemi averaged 9.3 points and 4.8 rebounds last season.
“Javion’s coming home,” Patsos said. “He’s got a great academic record, he’s going to get his business degree. I think Javion realized, not only did he miss Siena and the basketball community, but he missed the area.”
Patsos has high praise for freshman Evan Fisher, who he expects to earn immediate playing time. The 6-8 four man can play with his back to the basket or in space.
“Evan reminds me a bit of Ryan Rossiter,” Patsos said. “He’s not quite as athletic, but he’s got that demeanor and he’s a really tough player. Evan’s got that ability to lead.”
Sophomore Willem Brandwijk was thrown into an active role from the start last season after the loss of Silas and Bisping. Brandwijk appeared in all 31 games, making 12 starts and averaging 13 minutes per contest. He gives the Saints proven depth up front.
Junior walk-on Jimmy Merrill of nearby Rensselaer completes Siena’s traditional front court players. Merrill provided a big highlight last season with a breakaway dunk in the home Niagara win.
Long is one of the more versatile and dependable players in the MAAC. He is strong enough to play the four, and agile enough to create mismatches at the three. Long has reached double figures 36 times in his first two years with the program, averaging nearly 10 points and five rebounds over his first 65 games played.
The main issue has been foul trouble. Long ranked fourth nationally in fouls per game as a freshman, and led all of Division I last season. It’s something he’s worked hard to address over a focused off season.
“I think Lavon’s grown up and had a good summer,” Patsos said.
The 6-7 junior was also one of two players (Richmond transfer Kadeem Smithen who will sit this season per NCAA rules) that Patsos awarded an “A” to in preseason workouts.
Sophomore Jimmy Paige transformed his body through a vigorous off-season training program. The 6-4 guard/ forward is poised to build on a freshman season in which he averaged 11 minutes in 29 games played.
Baltimore native Nico Clareth is the most hyped member of Siena’s acclaimed freshman class. Clareth was MVP of the Baltimore Catholic League (BCL) Tournament and a BCL First Team selection after averaging 15 points as a senior for a Calvert Hall team that captured the MIAA A Conference and BCL Championship.
The 6-5 wing has all the physical tools, and figures to thrive in Patsos’ up-tempo system.
“Nico’s a really athletic guy,” Patsos said. “He may be starting by the end of the year, because he still needs to learn some things.”
The MAAC has always been a guard-dominant league, and if you hope to make moves in March, an excellent backcourt is a must.
“I think Marquis is ready to take over the team,” Patsos said. “He’s a great kid and a great player. We have to do a better job of surrounding him with people. We have Nico coming in, I think Evan can help, and Ryan Oliver is going to be great.”
Wright’s role as the team’s starting point guard is certain, but who joins him in the backcourt is the biggest question mark.
Oliver is a logical choice after averaging 7.3 points and appearing in all 31 games as a junior. He averaged 24.1 minutes last season, and started and closed the year on fire from distance. Patsos will turn to Oliver for leadership and offense, but his feel for the game may be what give him the inside track to crack the starting rotation.
Freshman Kenny Wormley traveled to Croatia with Wright this summer as part of a foreign tour led by assistant coach Greg Manning. Wormley is expected to see meaningful minutes spotting Wright at point guard and as a play-making off-guard.
“Kenny was 6-1 when we recruited him, and now he’s 6-4,” Patsos said. “He’s versatile enough to play the one or the two, and he has a very high ceiling.”
Classmate Kinnon LaRose is an intriguing newcomer who could provide instant offense. LaRose is the first Section 10 (Northern New York) basketball player to earn a Division I scholarship in 37 years. “I had lunch with Bill Parcells, and he said kids who rush for a lot of yards in high school, do the same in college,” Patsos said. “Kinnon was one of the top scorers in New York State history. I think that can translate, I think he’s really going to help us.”
Sophomore Cameron Gottfried, son of North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried, impressed enough in his first year with the program to land a scholarship this season. The left-handed sharp-shooter is expected to provide much-needed depth.
Siena will be the first team to open the season against the defending national champion and national runner-up since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
“We open at Duke and Wisconsin and that’s an opportunity to get better and evaluate,” Patsos said. “Four of our first five games are against teams that went to the postseason, and then we have the Albany game with a team that has advanced to three straight NCAAs. Those are things that prepare you for the MAAC, and it’s all about the MAAC.”
The Saints should be well prepared when conference play opens against defending champion Manhattan at Times Union Center on December 4. Seven of 11 non-league games come against teams that appeared in the postseason in 2015, and Patsos knows that means preparation will be critical.
“I have to adapt and do different things with this team,” Patsos said. “I want to really be focused on practice more than ever, and be a lot more engaged because we have new guys. I want to be better in March than we are in November.”
If the Saints can reach that modest goal, the talent is in place to have the Times Union Center rocking again when it matters most.