THIS SEASON Siena has done its best to leave nothing to chance. Not content to bank on winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament to secure his team a ticket to March Madness, coach Fran McCaffery aggressively went after an at-large bid by packing the Saints' nonconference schedule with heavyweights, including Pittsburgh, a preseason Final Four pick in some quarters, and defending national champion Kansas. But while the strategy has so far paid off—the RPI ranks Siena 31st overall and rates its nonconference schedule as the second-toughest in the country—the team still sits on the bubble for the Big Dance, with very little margin for error.
The problem for the Saints (20--6 through Sunday) lies in their mid-major MAAC competition. Of the league's nine other teams only Niagara (62nd) and Fairfield (95th) are in the 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 an opportunity to impress the tournament selection committee. Indeed, the Saints could win all four of the regular-season games that remained for them as of Monday night and still fall in the RPI.
It would have helped, 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 to Tennessee and Oklahoma State. "If we were to play a big team right now, we could take them," says senior guard Kenny Hasbrouck. "I don't think we'd found ourselves as a team when we played those guys."
He may very well be right. Since losing three straight in November at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Siena had gone 18--3 and all but sewn up the regular-season title in the MAAC, which would guarantee the Saints a berth in the NIT. With four starters back from the athletic, high-tempo team that knocked off fourth-seeded Vanderbilt in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament, Siena was seasoned and expected to contend. The surprise has been its newfound balance. Hasbrouck and junior forwards Edwin Ubiles and Alex Franklin each were averaging more than 13 points a game at week's end, while point guard Ronald Moore and center Ryan Rossiter were averaging more than eight. "Not everything is falling on our big three," says McCaffery, referring to Hasbrouck, Ubiles and Franklin. "That's making us much more difficult to defend."
A key reason for the equilibrium is the trip the Saints made last summer to Italy, where they played five games in 13 days against professional teams. McCaffery juggled his lineup frequently and found valuable minutes for backup guard Clarence Jackson and Rossiter, a 6'8 �", 227-pound sophomore from Staten Island, N.Y., who is the team's only first-year starter. His gangly appearance—complete with the black brace that he wears on his left knee as a precautionary measure—belies a smooth, agile game. Rossiter was averaging 9.6 points and 7.6 rebounds a game through Sunday and led the MAAC in field goal percentage (61.3%). "He was our best player [in Italy]," says McCaffery, "and he's become a dominant force this year."
But the team still belongs to Hasbrouck, a 6'3", 194-pound four-year starter who may be one of the best all-around guards in the nation. A lockdown defender and dependable scorer (at week's end he was shooting 43.1% from the field and led Siena with 48 steals), he had averaged 23.4 points in his last five games. "You're going to have a good team when your best player is [also] your hardest worker," says McCaffery.
There's little doubt the Saints are a good team. Whether they'll get to prove as much in the NCAA tournament is another matter.
ONLY AT SI.COM
Read Andy Glockner's Bubble Watch every Monday.