It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.
No truer phrase could better represent the story of the 2016-17 Siena Basketball season. While expectations heading into the year were at their highest since the program won three consecutive MAAC Championships from 2018-10, the Saints were forced to navigate challenges from the outset.
Slated with what would turn out to be the 32nd toughest non-conference schedule in the nation – and 82nd hardest overall – Siena was tested with 14 games vs. teams that would finish in the top-100 of the RPI. The Saints would begin the season 4-11.
But led by a veteran nucleus which for most of the season would make the Saints the only team in the country to feature four 1,000-point scorers, Siena came together when it mattered most. The Saints won 13 of their final 19 games and forged a memorable March run which would culminate with the program’s first MAAC Championship Game appearance in seven years.
Fast forward to 2017-18. Gone is one of the most decorated senior classes in program history which combined to score 5,787 career points. But what remains is a strong youthful corps featuring returnees who got a firsthand look at last year’s success, coupled with a highly talented group of newcomers eager to make an immediate impact.
The future is now, and the Saints got an early look of what might be in store this winter with an encouraging and highly beneficial international trip to Montreal in August. Three games against some of Canada’s top teams were exactly what was needed to give this young team a leg up entering a transitional season. Siena’s youthful squad showed great resiliency and a strong fight in rallying back in all three games, while winning two. Freshmen Jordan Horn and Prince Oduro each enjoyed breakout performances, and have firmly positioned themselves to be in the MAAC Rookie of the Year discussion.
While the Saints do welcome a number of new faces who expect to play large roles from the outset, Siena does also return arguably the most electrifying and explosive player in the MAAC in Nico Clareth. With no true seniors on this year’s team, the Saints’ junior co-captain will be needed to take on an even greater role this year both on and off the court. Clareth erupted for a legendary 27-point second half performance to rally Siena back from 17 down with 17 minutes to go to oust heavy favorite Monmouth in the MAAC Semifinals last season. He also posted a 33-point performance over Fairfield early in the season, and has all the tools necessary to put him in the MAAC Player of the Year discussion this winter.
With the MAAC figuring to be the most wide open it’s been in years, and with a reloaded roster featuring a young and exciting corps, a return to the upper echelon of the conference hierarchy could easily come sooner than expected.
Siena established itself as one of the best interior teams in the nation each of the past two seasons. The Saints made a concerted effort to get the ball inside on the offensive end, and dominated the glass on the defensive side of the court. Siena ranked in the top-15 nationally in rebounding margin and top-25 in rebounds per game in 2015-16, and in the top-50 and top-75 in both of those categories last season, respectively.
The Saints’ frontcourt was headlined by the only player in program history to eclipse 1,500 points and 1,000 rebounds for his career in Brett Bisping, who played alongside one of the best rim protectors in school history in Javion Ogunyemi.
With Bisping and Ogunyemi now having embarked upon professional careers in two of Europe’s top leagues, one of the biggest question marks surrounding the 2017-18 Saints is the team’s frontcourt. Although this year’s team figures to play more to its strength of its deep and talented backcourt, which could lend itself to a number of smaller lineups, Siena will still need to get solid production from its traditional bigs to succeed.
Of Siena’s returning frontcourt, junior Evan Fisher is expected to make the biggest impact. After averaging just 1.5 points and 1.2 rebounds over 8.2 minutes in his first two seasons, Fisher has been given an increased opportunity to excel and has taken the bull by the proverbial horns. Fisher broke out during the team’s trip to Canada in August where he averaged 13.3 points and 8.7 rebounds while shooting 57% from the field. Previously known as more of a “stretch four,” Fisher has shown an improved ability to score down low while also being a major factor on the boards.
The Saints are also excited for what the future holds in highly touted incoming freshman Oduro, who chose to wear the Green and Gold over 17 other Division I offers including several from high major programs. Oduro has already been projected to be the MAAC’s top freshman this year by several publications, and is expected to make an immediate impact in Year One. The Toronto native gave Siena fans a glimpse this summer with what the future might hold. He made a key contribution in averaging 6.6 points and 4.1 rebounds over seven tournament contests to lead Canada to the country’s first-ever basketball gold medal at the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup in Egypt. He followed up that performance by posting 9.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and a team-best 2.0 blocks during the Saints’ trip to Montreal. Quite frankly, Oduro is the total package and the sky is the limit for him.
Red-shirt junior Kevin Degnan enters the fray after sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer regulations. The former Fairfield Stag was selected to be a team co-captain along with Clareth, and is expected to be a weapon for the Saints with the mismatches he can create as a strong perimeter scoring threat.
Sophomore Sammy Friday looks to show progress from a freshman season in which he averaged just 4.2 minutes per contest. A late bloomer with a big upside, Siena hopes to see Friday take the next step forward in his development this winter.
Siena will look to play to its strength this season which features a strong backcourt coupled with several key players who can play a multitude of positions both inside and out. With the Saints likely to accentuate their strength with some smaller lineups this season, the impact of the team’s swing players will be critical.
While Clareth returns as the most season Saint, sophomore Ahsante Shivers is the team’s lone returning starter. Although Shivers didn’t fill up the stat sheet last season (4.0 points, 2.5 rebounds in 18.2 minutes), the versatile talent did much of the team’s dirty work both inside and out. Shivers played a vital role in the team’s late season success, and was at the center of numerous clutch plays down the stretch. Following a strong offseason in which he’s show great improvement scoring the basketball, Shivers is a prime candidate for a breakout season.
Another candidate to breakout and receive increased opportunities this season is classmate Thomas Huerter, Jr. who totaled just 46 minutes all of last year. The son of former Saint Thomas Huerter, Sr. ’91, comes from a strong pedigree and possesses a high basketball IQ. Huerter almost single-handedly rallied the Saints back to win the final game of their Montreal trip, and gives the team a strong mix of both height and athleticism to provide some meaningful minutes at several different positions.
Incoming freshman Manny Camper is a wildcard who, if healthy, could be another important piece to the puzzle. After undergoing offseason surgery, Camper could be ready for the start of the season. Should he play, the nearly 2,000-point high school scorer in the mold of former Saint Lavon Long could add another dimension with his athleticism coupled with a solid 6’5” 208-pound frame.
Although largely unknown and unproven outside of the uber-talented Clareth, Siena’s backcourt has all of the pieces to become one of the best units in the MAAC by season’s end.
The veteran of the group is red-shirt junior Kadeem Smithen who is set for his second active season after matriculating to Loudonville three years ago from Atlantic 10 school Richmond. The high energy performer who brings great passion and enthusiasm to the team both on and off the court, made the most of the squad’s August trip to his native Canada where he averaged 6.7 points while logging 31.0 minutes of action.
The unit’s success however will hinge on the performance of Clareth who is a strong candidate to lead the league in scoring this year while challenging for MAAC Player of the Year honors. When healthy, Clareth has been one of the most consistent scorers in the MAAC. He’s averaged 13.4 points over his first 56 collegiate games, with those numbers likely to increase this season. While the Saints do have a number of new talented pieces in play, the extent of the team’s success this season will very likely rest on the overall performance of Clareth.
Sophomore Khalil Richard will look towards an increased role this season. In the mold of former Detroit Pistons’ reserve Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson, Richard has the ability to come off the bench and provide the Saints with some quick firepower. Richard averaged 8.3 points in 20.3 minutes of action in Montreal, and will be looked upon to give Siena some instant offense when on the floor.
The two most important members of the backcourt could be Horn and fellow freshman Roman Penn. The two will likely battle it out for the right to fill the big shoes left behind by four-year starting point guard Marquis Wright, who graduated as the program’s 10th all-time leading scorer, while also ranking third in assists, and fifth in steals.
Horn also has the ability to play off the ball while possessing the size to see minutes at both the two and the three, and could blossom into a premier scoring option. The Minnesota native had arguably the most eye-opening performance of any Siena player in Montreal this summer when he led the team averaging 15.0 points on 53% shooting including 39% from three. Horn has both a strong three-point and mid-range game, and has earned himself a key role from the get-go.
Penn is a more traditional, pass-first point guard, who can also be a deceptive scorer. He penned an encouraging performance as the Saints’ primary floor general in Montreal, averaging 9.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.0 assists over 31 minutes of action. Penn should also benefit from the additional head start he received after joining the program as a midyear enrollee last January, which gave him the opportunity to go head-to-head in practice with Wright for the final two months.
Christian Bentley was teammates with Oduro the past two years at First Love Christian Academy in Pennsylvania. The versatile, physical guard who stands at 6’2” and 204 pounds, can play both the one and the two and has the ability to knock down the open three.
Rounding out the Saints’ backcourt is sophomore Ben Diamond. The local product who played for nearby Shaker High, earned a spot as a walk-on this season after serving as a team manager last year.
Siena has played the toughest non-conference schedule in the MAAC each of the past two seasons, and this year should be no different. After playing nine games vs. RPI top-85 teams in 2015-16 and the 32nd toughest non-conference schedule last year, Coach Patsos will once again have his team battled tested once the grinding MAAC schedule commences.
Including contests vs. MAAC opponents, Siena is set to play 16 games vs. 2017 postseason squads including 14 matchups against opponents which won 20 or more games last season. The Saints will be tested right off the bat as each of their first four games to tip-off the season will be against 20-win teams, three of which will be played on the road. Siena’s 13-game non-conference schedule features eight squads which won 20 or more games last season, including six which played in the postseason highlighted by four NCAA Tournament teams. The Saints’ 2017-18 non-conference opponents combined to average 20.5 wins and post a .617 winning percentage last season.
Capital Region fans will have a great opportunity to cheer on the team as the Saints’ 31-game slate features 15 contests at the Times Union Center, tying for the program’s most regular season home dates in 32 years. Siena’s 15 dates at the Times Union Center ties the 2010-11 squad for the program’s most regular season home games since playing 17 during the 1985-86 campaign.
The home ledger tips off with a marquee matchup when the Saints’ welcome “Dunk City” to the Capital Region for a battle against two-time defending Atlantic Sun Champion Florida Gulf Coast on Monday, Nov. 13, after opening the 77th season of Siena Basketball three days earlier on the road at projected CAA frontrunner College of Charleston Nov. 10. Other key home non-conference matchups feature the annual battles for the Franciscan and Albany Cups vs. St. Bonaventure and UAlbany on Nov. 29 and Dec. 9, respectively, and road contests at nationally recognized programs Louisville (Dec. 6) and Memphis (Dec. 20) as part of the Gotham Classic.
The MAAC schedule will revert back to a late December start this season, as the Saints tip-off their 29th season of conference competition at I-87 rival Marist Dec. 29 in Poughkeepsie. Premier MAAC matchups at the Times Union Center vs. defending MAAC Tournament Champion Iona and two-time reigning regular season champion Monmouth are set for Feb. 12 and Feb. 18, respectively. Siena heads to New Rochelle Jan. 11, and to the Jersey Shore Jan. 25.
For the fourth consecutive year – and the 19th time since Siena joined the MAAC in 1989-90 – the Saints will serve as the host of the MAAC Championships Mar. 1-5, with the hope of cutting down the Times Union Center nets for the first time since 2010.