To be the the projected favorite to win during the regular season and then again in a three-day haze of a tournament is hardly an easy task.
Yet, Siena and Old Dominion have done what has become expected, but is hardly a free pass.
At home in Albany, Siena rallied from 15 down and went to overtime to beat upstart Fairfield Monday night for the MAAC title.
“This is hard and it’s a different experience for the team,’’ said Siena coach Fran McCaffery by phone. “The journey to get to this point isn’t as fun as it should be. It’s not as appreciated because it’s expected.’’
Siena was 17-1 in the MAAC and has won 27 games. The Saints didn’t win the out-of-league games they had to (Georgia Tech, Temple, Northern Iowa or Butler) in order to make Monday night possibly moot, so they "just" had to win the league again -- for a third straight season.
“We go 17-1 and everyone wants to know what happened at Niagara [the one league loss]?” McCaffery said. “Why didn’t you beat Temple or Northern Iowa? We got Butler in the BracketBuster and didn’t win, so the only way to get in was what we did [Monday night]. This is hard. How many teams have been to the conference tournament final four years in a row? Not many.’’
Siena had first-round NCAA tournament wins in each of the last two years, beating Vanderbilt and Ohio State. So now of course the expectation is that since Siena is in, the Saints have to win – again. There are holdovers like Edwin Ubiles, Ryan Rossiter and Ronald Moore. But the team isn't quite as deep as it was a year ago.
“It’s almost like winning is a foregone conclusion and now the goal has to be the Sweet 16, to go further than the last two years,’’ McCaffery said. “But what we just did is really hard. Hopefully we’ll get a decent seed because let’s be honest -- if you get a bad seed, it’s hard.’’
At the same time Siena was rallying in Albany, ODU was in Richmond having to hold off William & Mary in the CAA final -- a Tribe team that had the best nonconference resume of any other league member with wins over Wake Forest, Maryland and Richmond
There was plenty of pressure on the Monarchs, who had to go to overtime to beat hometown VCU in the semifinals Sunday. While ODU had the nonconference win at Georgetown, it didn’t beat Missouri, Mississippi State or Richmond when it had the chance early in the season. The Monarchs also lost at Northern Iowa during BracketBusters. Although there's no way of knowing, Old Dominion might've been playing for its NCAA tournament lives against the Tribe.
“When you’re picked to win it, that’s the double-bullseye and this was the best race this league has had since the mid-1990s,’’ ODU coach Blaine Taylor said by phone. “We weren’t in first place by ourselves until the 18th game.’’
Taylor, who also guided Old Dominion to the NCAAs in 2005 and '07, said playing the BracketBuster game at UNI made them “steely tough,’’ even though the Monarchs lost on the road.
Taylor said he was confident the Monarchs could have received a bid even without a win over the Tribe. But that’s hard to tell. The Monarchs have consistently been on the cusp of a bid, but haven't always been able to close it out.
The difference with this squad is experience, Taylor said.
“This is the third time in six years that we were sitting on an at-large berth,’’ Taylor said. “I would like to think we were going to get something done. But we’re at the mercy of the seeding and the bracket.’’
Like Siena, ODU is confident it can win a first-round game and maybe more. They both were pushed and pressed to win their respective leagues for two months. Now the weight is off. They are free of the burden.
They are in.