Infused with seven newcomers and a returning nucleus, Carmen Maciariello is intrigued by Siena's potential after three straight top-three finishes in his first three years at the helm. (Photo by Siena Saints Men’s Basketball)
While Iona commanded most of the attention in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference last season before Saint Peter’s historic NCAA Tournament regional final run last March, there was a third program threatening to steal the spotlight before the league descended upon Atlantic City for its postseason festivities.
Siena, the regular season champion of 2020 and 2021 that could very well have captured the postseason crown two years ago if not for the start of the pandemic, and last year had it not drawn Iona in the quarterfinals due to the MAAC’s COVID-induced seeding according to wins, was primed to strike as a dark horse of sorts before the final weekend of the regular season. However, losses to Niagara and Canisius, with star forward Anthony Gaines tearing his ACL in the latter game, sent the Saints on a tailspin before a shocking tournament quarterfinal loss to Quinnipiac that deflated a balloon from which most of the air had already been extricated.
However, a retooled Siena roster has honed its craft in the Capital Region this summer in advance of a 10-day trip to Italy that will give the Saints much-needed experience as they take aim yet again at a MAAC that is still anyone’s game as far as a league favorite is concerned.
“We made it to the MAAC tournament with gauze pads and Ace bandages, and probably some super glue holding some things together on these guys,” head coach Carmen Maciariello reflected prior to Siena’s departure. “It was unfortunate, but a top three finish and these guys worked hard. Now it’s turning the page. These guys want to win a championship. That’s why they came to Siena.”
“Our guys don’t want to finish third this year. They want to win the league, and I think we have a hungry group with older guys that have all different shared experiences, but also went through something last year that we never could get the steam we needed. We roll with the punches, we continue to adapt, adjust and manage, and for me, the true beauty is these guys being able to stay healthy and enjoy the game they love.”
Senior Jackson Stormo leads the charge in the frontcourt, a mainstay in the Saints’ lineup the past two years who also continues the presence of a vocal leader in the paint and in practice, something Maciariello has had on all his teams going back to Elijah Burns in his first season, Manny Camper en route to MAAC Player of the Year honors, and even Gaines last season. Stormo has already shown Siena's incoming forwards the ropes too, which makes the transition easier down low while the backcourt prepares to be led by a pair of sophomores in Jared Billups and Javian McCollum.
“I think Jackson as a person is a phenomenal kid,” Maciariello said of Stormo. “He’s got a big heart, and now he’s gotta take that next step and do it not only by his actions, but also using it in the spoken word. Guys are seeing that, but I also think guys are seeing how talented he is, especially the younger, newer guys, and even my staff. I think that alone is going to help him lead. When your best players are your hardest workers, usually everything falls into line.”
“I just think they’re competitors,” he added with regard to Billups and McCollum, the former of whom having played most of his freshman campaign on a fractured wrist that forced him to use his non-dominant left hand through summer workouts. “I think both these guys need to take a big jump for us to be successful. Jared has got to shoot the ball better from three and understand how he can score with his shoulders and his strength, and Javian’s gotta be a leader. He’s gotta be the straw that stirs the drink, the guy that’s the most loved-up guy on campus. Those are the guys that you know are special, and he’s got that in his personality. You could see the fire when he was healthy on the court. I was practicing him in a Tom Brady red jersey so he didn’t get hit, but at the end of the day, we need those two guys to stay healthy, stay the course.”
Michael Baer and Jordan Kellier also return to provide interior depth, with Jayce Johnson and Andrew Platek back to shore up the backcourt as all four are healthy for the first time since the start of last season. Seven newcomers are donning the green and gold for the first time, though, and Maciariello believes each one can contribute enough to make the Saints a formidable unit heading into the November 7 season opener at Holy Cross.
“Michael Eley is an interesting story,” he said of the Indiana native who will compete for minutes off the ball. “He had some American Athletic Conference offers at an early age, then he was going to go to prep school. He came on a visit and we had a candid conversation about what was expected of him, and he’s kind of a hidden gem. He’s a 6-foot-4 two guard, he’s athletic, he can shoot, he’ll help us defensively. Killian Gribben, who played for the under-20 Irish national team, will contend for minutes up front with Eduardo Lane, who came from San Jose State and is finally healthy. (Lane’s) a lefty who can stretch the floor, but people don’t know that he can shoot pretty good.”
International imports Zekeriya (Zach) Yigit Tekin of Turkey and Sveinn Birgisson of Iceland will have their opportunities to afford an impact as well, with the former earning plaudits for his basketball instincts as he continues to adapt to the American style and game.
“Zack is everything we thought he was,” said Maciariello. “We watched tons of film on him, he’s just a super high-IQ point guard, he’s making reads and plays just off natural instinct. Svenni from Iceland, is like a three-four who can shoot it, can put it down. I think he’s going to be a really good player for us. Mason Courtney and Brendan Coyle are two guys that are walk-ons, but are doing a great job of making shots.”
“I’m hoping to play everybody on this Italy trip just to make sure they get a taste of international competition. I think when you have a synergy that kind of seeps in, that’s what leads to special seasons. And that’s our goal every year. We’re looking to grow our collective unity and our love for one another on this trip, but then I want to see us defend at the highest level, I think that’s non-negotiable. I didn’t think we were good enough on the backboards last year, and we want to make sure we’re getting second chance opportunities on the rim. Hopefully that leads to some aggression for us, and I want to be able to score the basketball, I want the ball to move.”
Siena had hoped to be more of an uptempo outfit last season before circumstances dictated otherwise, so the focus on pushing the ball more has been central to Maciariello’s vision this season as he hopes to use the experience in Italy as a harbinger of things to come during the season.
“I want to play with pace and take great shots,” he reiterated. “You should hopefully see the ball hit multiple sides and us playing off of Stormo and playing off the high ball screen. I would say there’s more of a concerted effort to make sure we know how hard we have to cut and how much better shape we have to be in. Having 11 new guys last year, there was a lot to be a taught and I’m not sure we were able to pick up all the little nuances. This group here, I ask them before I put in anything.”
“We’re in a great spot. I really love this group. I’ve used the words ‘collective unity,’ just making sure that everyone understands it’s from the first guy all the way down to volunteer assistants, managers. The love for Siena basketball has to be at the highest level from A to Z, and I think that’s what these guys have understood. There’s that we, not that I or me attitude. It’s been really, really invigorating.”