THIS SEASON Sienahas done its best to leave nothing to chance. Not content to bank on winningthe Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament to secure his team a ticketto March Madness, coach Fran McCaffery aggressively went after an at-large bidby packing the Saints' nonconference schedule with heavyweights, includingPittsburgh, a preseason Final Four pick in some quarters, and defendingnational champion Kansas. But while the strategy has so far paid off—the RPIranks Siena 31st overall and rates its nonconference schedule as thesecond-toughest in the country—the team still sits on the bubble for the BigDance, with very little margin for error.
The problem forthe Saints (20--6 through Sunday) lies in their mid-major MAAC competition. Ofthe league's nine other teams only Niagara (62nd) and Fairfield (95th) are inthe RPI's top 100. Siena may be 14--1 in conference play, but that lone loss,on Feb. 7 at Rider (161st), looms large. And even a date with Northern Iowa(83rd) in the BracketBusters showcase this Saturday doesn't present much of anopportunity to impress the tournament selection committee. Indeed, the Saintscould win all four of the regular-season games that remained for them as ofMonday night and still fall in the RPI.
It would havehelped, of course, if Siena hadn't gone 0--4 against teams in the top 50;besides falling at Pitt and at KU, the Saints suffered neutral-site losses toTennessee and Oklahoma State. "If we were to play a big team right now, wecould take them," says senior guard Kenny Hasbrouck. "I don't thinkwe'd found ourselves as a team when we played those guys."
He may very wellbe right. Since losing three straight in November at the Old Spice Classic inOrlando, Siena had gone 18--3 and all but sewn up the regular-season title inthe MAAC, which would guarantee the Saints a berth in the NIT. With fourstarters back from the athletic, high-tempo team that knocked off fourth-seededVanderbilt in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament, Siena wasseasoned and expected to contend. The surprise has been its newfound balance.Hasbrouck and junior forwards Edwin Ubiles and Alex Franklin each wereaveraging more than 13 points a game at week's end, while point guard RonaldMoore and center Ryan Rossiter were averaging more than eight. "Noteverything is falling on our big three," says McCaffery, referring toHasbrouck, Ubiles and Franklin. "That's making us much more difficult todefend."
A key reason forthe equilibrium is the trip the Saints made last summer to Italy, where theyplayed five games in 13 days against professional teams. McCaffery juggled hislineup frequently and found valuable minutes for backup guard Clarence Jacksonand Rossiter, a 6'8 ½", 227-pound sophomore from Staten Island, N.Y., whois the team's only first-year starter. His gangly appearance—complete with theblack brace that he wears on his left knee as a precautionary measure—belies asmooth, agile game. Rossiter was averaging 9.6 points and 7.6 rebounds a gamethrough Sunday and led the MAAC in field goal percentage (61.3%). "He wasour best player [in Italy]," says McCaffery, "and he's become adominant force this year."
But the team stillbelongs to Hasbrouck, a 6'3", 194-pound four-year starter who may be one ofthe best all-around guards in the nation. A lockdown defender and dependablescorer (at week's end he was shooting 43.1% from the field and led Siena with48 steals), he had averaged 23.4 points in his last five games. "You'regoing to have a good team when your best player is [also] your hardestworker," says McCaffery.
There's littledoubt the Saints are a good team. Whether they'll get to prove as much in theNCAA tournament is another matter.
ONLY AT SI.COM
Read Andy Glockner's Bubble Watch every Monday.
LOU CAPOZZOLA (HASBROUCK)
EASY RISER A high flyer with a low profile, Hasbrouck is one of the nation's top guards.