Picked 10th in MAAC preseason poll, Siena doubled that number with 20 wins and CBI championship. (Photo courtesy of Big Apple Buckets)
When we spoke to Jimmy Patsos for the first time following his introduction as the successor to Mitch Buonaguro at Siena, whom he replaced after a nine-year tenure at Loyola, he admitted that; in no uncertain terms, Rome would not be built in a day.
"It's going to take a year to rebuild," Patsos told us two weeks after he arrived in Loudonville in April of 2013, "but in a year, I expect to be back on track."
Picking up the pieces of an 8-24 season that was the final chapter in Buonaguro's stint at the helm of the Saints, Patsos quickly changed the culture. With a young roster that only featured one senior in walk-on Steven Cruz, Siena built team chemistry over the summer on a trip to Montreal that saw the Saints win four of five games as Patsos built his nine-man rotation, which he adhered to strictly as Siena grew into a 20-win team, winning 11 games in the MAAC en route to the program's first postseason championship in the College Basketball Invitational.
"I think the kids got better as the year went on," Patsos remarked on the scrappy Saints, who won nine of their last eleven on their way to capturing the CBI on their on-campus home court of the Alumni Recreation Center against Fresno State. "We also had some depth, Jaden, and that helped us a lot. (Ryan) Oliver, (Evan) Hymes, Javion Ogunyemi, Maurice White, we had four guys off the bench that averaged 10 minutes a game, and that helps you out a lot in the tournament."
"You know what they did, Jaden? They saw that I was going to play eight or nine guys and run and press. They saw early on, 'hey, he's going to run and press. Yeah, he might yell a little bit, but we're going to have a lot of fun, and we're going to be a unit, and if you're not in, you're not in."
After a winless trip to the Old Spice Classic that the national audience will probably remember more for Patsos using all of his timeouts in the first half against Memphis rather than battling Saint Joseph's and Purdue late into the second half in games that indicated just how close the Saints were to a breakthrough, Siena stood at 2-7 going into the opening week of MAAC play and the annual trip to Buffalo, which featured a split with Niagara and Canisius. Once they got back home, Patsos' young charges found their first of several grooves during the season, winning four of their next five in a stretch that saw convincing victories over an Atlantic 10 opponent in Fordham and 2013-14 MAAC regular season runner-up Rider.
"You know, I knew we had a chance; and you've got to be careful, because everybody's after you after a win, but when we lost a tough one to Marist on a last-second shot," Patsos revealed when asked of the first sign of it all coming together. "I didn't know which way it was going to go, and two days later, we played Canisius to triple overtime. We lost, and (Billy) Baron had 40 that day, but in other words, once we were able to come back from that tough loss and play to triple overtime against one of the best players in the league and one of the best teams in the league, we knew we were going to be alright."
The 92-88 loss to Canisius on February 16th dropped Siena to 11-16 on the year before the Saints responded with a resilient 67-63 victory five days later against eventual MAAC champion Manhattan at the Times Union Center. Three more victories against Rider, Quinnipiac and Monmouth ensued to give Patsos and company a first-round bye in the MAAC tournament in Springfield, where Canisius defeated the Saints for the third time to leave them at 15-17, with their postseason hopes hanging by the faintest of threads before accepting a bid to the CBI and defeating Stony Brook, Penn State and Illinois State prior to taking two of three in the championship series against Fresno State.
"The CBI was a treat," Patsos said, giving credibility to a tournament that many fans and some critics have knocked over the years due to its pay-for-play nature and, in some cases, lackluster fan turnout, which was definitely not the case for Siena, who played five home games and averaged over 3,200 fans for each one. "The best thing about the CBI is that the MAAC, (Rich) Ensor and the league helped us get in. We felt like we had to represent the MAAC, and Stony Brook was a great team. Then we got to play Penn State, it was great for our fans and our media to see a Big Ten team, and Illinois State's got a great tradition, then the Fresno thing was just a great trip. It's a very interesting thing, the CBI, and to win it is great for the fans, great for the students, it's great for the players."
All told, Siena enjoyed an improved season in all facets under Patsos, whose flex offense that he learned as an assistant to Gary Williams at Maryland accounted for a nine-point improvement in total offense, as the Saints averaged 69 points per game this season compared to 60 under the deliberate offensive stylings of Buonaguro.
"We were able to surprise people," a candid Patsos admitted. "They didn't know how good (Brett) Bisping was. Hey, I didn't know how good Bisping was," the coach said of his sophomore forward, who averaged 11.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game in a breakout second season after playing his rookie campaign behind all-time program great O.D. Anosike. "Our style of play, playing nine guys, going up and down, our depth really helped us. I gave credit when we won the tournament to Mitch, Mitch left me some good players, but they're all our guys. The young and the old all bought in."
Going into next season, Siena will return all of its nine-man rotation, paced by Bisping and senior shooting guard Rob Poole, while Marquis Wright and Lavon Long become sophomores with Hymes, clutch outside shooter Ryan Oliver and burgeoning forward Imoh Silas all reprising their integral roles as well. Joining them will be Patrick Cole, who sat out while completing his year in residence this past season when transferring from Coppin State.
"There were times where he was our best player in practice," Patsos gushed about Cole, a 6-5 guard from Newark who takes the floor as a redshirt sophomore with three years of eligibility remaining. "He's really good, he reminds me of Dennis Johnson," the coach said, comparing Cole to the former Boston Celtics legend. "He can get you a bucket, he knows how to play, he'll pass it, he's big, he'll rebound. He does a lot of things, and he's got some size as a guard. He looks a little like Deron Williams out there, too."
The abundance of incumbents has led many to assume the Saints will be among the favorites to win the MAAC next season, especially with the conference tournament returning to their home court of the Times Union Center, but their veteran coach is quick to dispel that notion.
"Manhattan and Iona were in the finals last year," Patsos reminded us. "I look at Manhattan and Iona and say they're the two favorites, and Quinnipiac's got some good players back, including their big guy (Ousmane) Drame, who's first team all-league."
"We didn't kill anybody. I'm just glad there's a lot of interest in the program, and I think we're going to have a chance to win every game next year. It's going to be an interesting year. I'll figure out a lot on October 15th and then go from there."