As Jameson Fleming wrote, a handful of mid-major stars have seen their tournament hopes vanish this weekend. While Siena doesn't have a stud like Davidson's Stephen Curry, Tennessee-Martin's Lester Hudson, or VMI's Holmes twins, the Saints have a deep lineup of quality mid-major players who, with a win tonight, could live up to their season-long expectation: a berth in the 2009 NCAA Tournament.
If the Saints falter in tonight's MAAC Championship against Niagara, Fran McCaffery's squad will be added to the list of mid-major dissapointments.
Coached by Joe Mihalich, who is the most likable coach in the MAAC, Niagara has had its most successful season of the decade. At 26-7, 14-4 MAAC, the Purple Eagles split the season series with the Saints and finished a mere two games behind the regular-season champs.
The two finalists for the MAAC crown are so even that tonight's game is nearly impossible to predict.
The following is my breakdown of the two teams.
Both teams have six prominent offensive threats, but percentages make Siena the more effective offensive team. The Saints shoot 47.4 percent from the floor and 33.4 percent from deep compared to Niagara's 42 percent and 31 percent respectively.
Despite the disparity in percentages, both programs score about 77 points per game.
Note that Niagara's leading scorer, Tyrone Lewis, has converted on a meager 10 of 51 field goals in three games at the Times Union Center this season.
Again, both teams are equal in this aspect of the game, but Niagara is slightly better. Bilal Benn, who posted 20 points and 19 rebounds in last night's semifinal win against Rider, led the MAAC in rebounds per game. Benn, accompanied by teammate Tyrone Lewis, topped the MAAC in steals per game. As a team, the Purple Eagles held opponents to 40.4 percent field goal shooting compared to Siena's 44 percent.
Ryan Rossiter is the league's second-best shot blocker, and Kenny Hasbrouck is notorious for playing tight defense. However, the Purple Eagles are deeper on the defensive end.
The two best sixth men in the league will come off of the bench tonight to give their team a boost of energy.
Siena's Clarence Jackson averaged 8.8 points in 15 minutes per game and was extolled as the MAAC Sixth Man of the Year. Niagara's Demetrius Williamson played 20 minutes per game and averaged 7.7 points.
Fran McCaffery has shown more trust in his bench than Joe Mihalich has—four Saints have averaged at least 10 minutes per game off the bench.
Jackson is the superior sixth man and the Saints have the deeper bench.
Fran McCaffery and Joe Mihalich are the MAAC's supreme coaches. They have each shown that they can recruit, enhance their players' skills, and coach a basketball game better than any other MAAC coach.
McCaffery's temper has the potential to get his team into trouble—he is not afraid of the referees or of being whistled for a tech.
Although the Purple Eagles have lost a few close games this year, Mihalich is the more reliable coach.
Ever since MAAC play commenced, I have had Niagara slated as my pick to win the league. However, I forgot to factor in Siena's home-court advantage in the conference tournament. At home, the Saints are 16-0. Niagara didn't even resemble a threat to the Saints' unblemished home record when they travelled to Albany—the Saints easily handled the Purple Eagles, 82-65.
I think this one will be a tighter game, but the home-court advantage will have a large role in deciding the winner.
Final Score: Siena 86, Niagara 82