Amid uncertainty in MAAC, Carmen Maciariello is high on his Siena team, praising Saints as most athletic squad of his five-year tenure. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
In four years under Carmen Maciariello, Siena has been fortunate to not finish worse than third in Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play, with a tie for third last season following a solo third the year before and regular season championships in both of the coach’s first two years at the helm of his alma mater.
But despite the sustained success, the Saints have never been able to break through in March, with various obstacles rearing their heads over the years from COVID to an unprecedented tournament format change, to late-season injuries and inability to execute. Still, Maciariello is optimistic about what he returns to the Capital Region, reflecting on what went wrong last year for the Saints but also heralding a new roster he considers to be the most athletic of his tenure.
“I went through probably the last six minutes of all those losses at the end of the season,” he said of Siena's second-half swoon. “To be honest, I look at every season as a new season. I don’t really get caught up on the year before. I do think we peaked too early last year. I thought it was a really emotional year for the program from Evan Franz and Mr. Baer (passing away), and just everything from different injuries. We had 12 different starting lineups, and we haven’t been able to kind of just play and grow so the offense could take off.”
“For me, it’s about let’s keep it simple, let’s continue to work on what we need to work on and then grow so that we’re not worried about adjustments. We want our pace to be a little faster. We want the ball to move a little bit, but also, we want to try to score the ball earlier if we can score in the 70s and we can add a couple more possessions. Since I’ve been the head coach here, I think this is the most athletic team that I’ll have had from top to bottom. Defensively, we weren’t to our standards last year to where we needed to be, so I think all that put into one will have that formula to get us back to the top. Since I’ve been here, we haven’t finished lower than third in four years. That’s fine, but the goal is to win a championship every year. I hope it’s appreciated, but we want to contend not just in the MAAC tournament. We want to get in the NCAA Tournament and win games.”
Siena returns four players from last season’s rotation, with point guard Zek Tekin and reigning MAAC Rookie of the Year Michael Eley perhaps the most recognizable. Tekin enters his sophomore year as the man entrusted to lead the Saints’ offense after Javian McCollum transferred to Oklahoma in the offseason, and the belief within the program is he will overcome the learning curve he faced as a freshman and evolve further into a floor general.
Zek Tekin (0) takes over for Javian McCollum at point guard this season for Siena. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
“He likes to play fast, and I’ve told him: We’re going to limit this playbook,” Maciariello said of Tekin. “We’re not going to have 20 different families of plays. We want guys to play off their instincts, and Zek is a very instinctual player, so hopefully we’re going to make it easier for him to just go out and play. People don’t realize that was his first time in America last year, playing Americanized basketball, English as a second language, far away from home. I thought he did a good job and I thought he understood the importance of school, did a great job in the weight room with his body and his conditioning.”
“Obviously with Javian moving on to Oklahoma, I thought Zek Tekin showed great glimpses of what he can be for us, especially beating Iona and Rider here at our place. I’m hoping you’ll see a guy that’s going to be able to push it, play with great tempo and pace, and just do a little bit of everything. We want him setting the table for everybody, and I think he can do that. I know he can do that.”
As for Eley, he may not follow up his top rookie honors with Player of the Year recognition the way Jalen Pickett did as a sophomore in 2019-20, but Maciariello is quite bullish on his second-year forward. Eley, well as the help he will receive up front from Sveinn Birgisson and Killian Gribben, will be instrumental in helping fill the void left by the graduation of Jackson Stormo and Michael Baer, as well as the transfer of Jared Billups, the Saints’ main defensive stopper last year.
MAAC rookie of the year last season, Michael Eley now enters sophomore campaign as Siena's top scorer and offensive leader. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
“Michael had a great summer,” the coach said of Eley. “He’s such a tremendous athlete that sometimes I think he takes that for granted because there’s just so many things he does effortlessly. I think the pieces for him are those details defensively, knowing where he has to be and what he has to be. I don’t think offense is ever going to be a problem for him, but I think you will see an uptick in his usage with different things we do for him, and I think that’s a good thing. We want him to have the ball, we want him to make plays with it, and we want him to be able to guard a first or second scorer and be able to give them fits with his length and his athleticism.”
“Svenny is in a great spot. He was here four weeks, then he went home to Iceland and when he came back, he was winning all our conditioning workouts. He was a leader in terms of his fitness, and he’s a guy that — if he’s a catch-and-shoot guy and he plays off two feet — he’s going to help us, and we told him that coming into the summer. He’s going to challenge to play minutes. And then Killian, I’m just so happy with the steps that he took. He played for that Irish national team, and he played more of a five. Now with Giovanni Emejuru here, Killian’s going to have a chance to play the four or the five, and he can start at either depending on what happens. He’s just so instinctual. He’s really good in the pocket, he can make a shot, and he can finish above the rim and run the floor.”
Siena has six newcomers on the roster this season, less than some other MAAC programs ravaged by the transfer portal, but also enough to cause a large amount of intrigue as to what the Saints may look like come November 6, when Holy Cross comes to MVP Arena to open the season. The largest source of that intrigue comes from Sean Durugordon, now a two-time transfer upon his arrival from Austin Peay. It remains to be seen whether or not Durugordon will receive a waiver to play this year, but regardless of his status, Maciariello is pleased with what he has brought to the program already, as he is with the remainder of his incoming talent.
“He’s a physical guard wing,” Maciariello said of Durugordon. “He can kind of play the two or the three, he could probably even play the four depending on what we’re doing out there. He can make a shot, he’s got a great body. Think power guard, think physical wing. Those are probably a couple of synonyms for Sean Durugordon. Either way, waiver or no waiver, he’s adding value with what he does and what be brings to practice. That’s how you get a group to grow.”
The five other pieces to the Saints’ recruiting class, four freshmen and sophomore Giovanni Emejuru, will be available right away. The goal for them, says Maciariello, is to simply acclimate them to college basketball and give them enough room to grow while also affording each the opportunity to make an impact.
“Bralyn (Smith), 6-foot-4 guard, shoots it at a high level,” Maciariello prefaced. “(He’s a) tremendous worker, he’ll be in the mix to be able to play as many minutes as he can handle. Michael Ojo could be a small-ball five but we recruited him more as a three-four, and he’s a tremendous athlete. He’s 6-foot-6 with maybe a 7-foot wingspan, physically ready to compete, looks like he could play in the NFL on Sundays. His best attribute will be him crashing the glass early. Max Frazier is a five man, but could transition to four depending on if him and Killian are on the floor together. He’s super long, he has a jump shot almost like Tayshaun Prince, if you remember the way his jumper looked. Max is ambidextrous, and we’ve worked hard this summer on really getting him to be a true lefty.”
“Michael Evbagharu from Toronto, a guy that could play one through three, Canadian national team player. We’re just getting him acclimated to different terminologies and things, but he’s got a super high IQ and he’s just really businesslike, which we love. And then we have Giovanni Emejuru, who’s got three years left coming from Sam Houston. He’s a blank slate, another guy that’s just super into learning and understanding, so we’re really taking the time to build his foundation. Giving him the why is the most important thing. We’ve got two really good walk-ones that are incoming freshmen as well in Kyle Withers and Carson White, and then Brendan Coyle — who basically sat out last year — who will provide depth in the frontcourt too.”
Again, enough wholesale changes have been made to the roster to where Siena will be an entirely different incarnation of itself at times than it was a year ago. However, Maciariello is steadfast in his commitment to a tough, uptempo team that not only knows its identity on any given night, but does not deviate from it at any point during the season.
“We want to build and we want to continue to grow it to where it can morph on its own,” he proclaimed. “In my first year, we saw that. We won 10 straight games at the end of the regular season, we were peaking at the right time, and the guys had gelled. You are who you are when you get to Atlantic City, and we want to make sure that that Siena team that travels to Atlantic City has been built and grown through toughness, grown to be able to play how we want to play night in and night out. We don’t want to have to change or adapt and adjust our defensive philosophies ever.”
“Hopefully we’re able to score the ball early at times and be able to get more efficient in transition. Hopefully our defense is leading that transition and we’re able to get second chance opportunities on the glass. We want to compete and we want to just have everyone know we’re going to be the toughest out in conference play. We want to be able to attack that glass with reckless abandon, we want to be able to push the ball and share it, attack the paint, drive and kick. We want to be able to play inside out and establish our fours and fives in the paint, where teams have to be able to guard us in the post. I think you’ve always seen flashes of that, but you haven’t seen it on a constant, consistent basis, so the goal is to grow that and now it’s able to take off.”