Saints plan to keep marching toward major status

LOUDONVILLE, N.Y. -- Siena didn't upset Vanderbilt in the first round of the NCAA tournament in March.

No, the Saints pounded the SEC Commodores by 21.

The seeds said 13 versus 4. But to everyone involved with the Saints program it was no upset.

"We don't think it was," said Siena senior guard Kenny Hasbrouck.

Siena lost in the second round to Villanova, but that didn't dampen the Saints' belief that they are a threat nationally.

Six months later, the Saints aren't even hesitating to promote themselves.

"I consider ourselves, while we're in a mid-major conference, I think we're one of the top teams in the country right now," said Siena coach Fran McCaffery while sitting in his relatively modest office on Siena's suburban Albany campus.

Hasbrouck said, "I think we should win a [Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference] championship and get back to the second round at least, but I'm not supposed to think about that during the season."

Junior guard Ronald Moore added, "I definitely believe we're one of the best in the country and all we've got to do is prove it this year."

College basketball still has its traditional powers. Nothing will change that. No one is knocking North Carolina, Kansas, Duke, UCLA, Louisville, Connecticut, Florida, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Kentucky and countless others out of the higher-profile conferences from their traditional perch atop the landscape.

But there is now room for a rotation of other programs to have their day when they can compete with any team in the country.

Gonzaga got it started in the past decade with an Elite Eight run in 1999. Tulsa made it to the Elite Eight in 2000. Temple was in the Elite Eight in 2001. Kent State was in the Elite Eight in 2002. Xavier and Saint Joseph's cracked the Elite Eight in 2004. George Mason made it to the Final Four in 2006. Davidson was in the Elite Eight in March.

Expecting Siena, which returns all five starters from last season's 23-11 team, to be in the Elite Eight in 2009 would be a bit of a reach. The Saints haven't solved their rebounding or post-play issues. But nothing has dampened this team's confidence.

Hasbrouck spent the summer playing with NBA players and fellow elite college players in a summer league in Washington, D.C.

"I can play against anyone in the country," Hasbrouck said. "Now teams like ours are getting talent from high schools that not everyone knows about. There are players in the top 100 that are going to mid-majors and shining."

Siena shouldn't be a shock to those that follow the game. The Saints should be one of the top teams in the MAAC every season. The Saints easily have the largest following in the league and play in the downtown Albany Times Union Center. The arena holds 8,065 fans; the Saints regularly draw more than 4,000 and push capacity for key games, such as versus Manhattan.

The media coverage for this team out of a mostly one-bid league rivals plenty of high majors. Multiple newspapers travel with Siena and the local TV affiliates are regularly around. Siena has plenty of history too, with former coaches Mike Deane and Paul Hewitt taking the Saints to the NCAAs in 1989 and 1999, respectively, before moving on to higher-profile gigs. Rob Lanier took the Saints to the NCAAs in 2002, too.

"There are a lot of expectations here," said McCaffery, who has now taken three different schools to the NCAAs after leading Lehigh there in 1988 and UNC Greensboro in 2001. "We are expected to be one of the top three teams every year and that's difficult in a league like this that all give scholarships. People in this community have been following this team for a very long time and have bought season tickets."

McCaffery interviewed for the job when Hewitt got the job in 1997. He waited until after Hewitt, Louis Orr and Lanier were gone before going after and getting the gig in 2005.

Now, at age 49, Siena may become the destination job for McCaffery that it wasn't for Hewitt or Orr.

McCaffery has a young family with four children ranging in ages from 2 to 10. His wife, Margaret, is a former Notre Dame player and assistant. They met when they were both Irish assistants, after he left a head coaching position at Lehigh in 1988 to work for Digger Phelps. McCaffery stayed in South Bend for 11 seasons.

"I look at it and say, 'Would I leave for money?' A lot of times money motivates that decision," McCaffery said. "I could have gotten more money last year and turned down jobs that in the past would have paid me more. But I love the people here, the athletic director and the administration. They pay me well. I'm not a millionaire, but I can live a comfortable lifestyle and I'm not opposed to a long-term thing here."

McCaffery was an ideal candidate for Providence and UMass, and he could easily be a name if something were to open in his native Philadelphia. But he doesn't have to move, not when he has built a program back at Siena where tournament access is there every season. Albany has been a traditional host of the conference tournament, but it will be moving around a bit more in the coming years. Still, McCaffery has three years left on his contract, and was pleased that he received a new deal after his first season in 2006 when he was 15-13.

"If you think about it, the landscape has changed, and 15 years ago, what was a Big East job is not what it is now," McCaffery said. Going to a program that is at the bottom of the Big East, even for money that is closer to a $1 million salary, certainly has its merit. But so does quality of life, and with NCAA tournament access being so crucial to coaching longevity, life at a major mid-major can be just as good even if it's not as financially rewarding.

"If he brings in quality players with a great attitude then there's no reason why he would want to leave," Moore said. "We probably don't tell him enough that we love him to death."

The loyalty the returning players showed McCaffery comes amid a few defections that would have probably crushed most similar programs. Jack McClinton should be a first-team all-ACC guard for Miami this season. He could be a first-team All-America. He led the Hurricanes to the NCAAs last season.

McClinton left Siena just after McCaffery arrived.

Kojo Mensah stayed for the first season under McCaffery in 2005-06. He scored well, but then abruptly bolted to Duquesne. Mensah had a crazy career at Duquesne: He was one of five players who was shot on campus in the fall of 2006, survived that attack, recovered during his redshirt season, played last season and then declared for the NBA draft.

When McCaffery lost McClinton he grabbed Hasbrouck.

"No disrespect to Jack, but once we got Kenny to replace Jack it was an even trade," McCaffery said. "If you were to ask me who I would rather have it would be Kenny. He's a better player for us."

Hasbrouck became the first franchise recruit for McCaffery, even though Hasbrouck had a low-profile when he was signed.

The recruiting class of juniors Moore, Alex Franklin and Edwin Ubiles -- three of the starters alongside seniors Hasbrouck and Josh Duell -- was critical to Siena's current run of 20-plus wins in consecutive seasons, back-to-back MAAC championship-game appearances and the latest NCAA berth and subsequent "upset" win over Vandy.

McCaffery put together a schedule this season that will make the sport's followers notice. Siena is in the loaded Old Spice Classic in Orlando over Thanksgiving. The Saints, who are known for their up-tempo, fast-break style, will open with Tennessee. The common expectation is that Siena will lose. But the Saints firmly believe that on a neutral court Siena will be the talk of the tournament, just as much as headline teams Michigan State and Gonzaga. (Georgetown, Oklahoma State, Maryland and Wichita State are also in the field.)

Plus, truly one-way road games (without returns) against Kansas and Pitt are chances for the Saints to steal a win or two, or at the very least pick up valuable power-rating points if they're competitive.

McCaffery said he expects the team's power rating to be a plus by the end of the season. The MAAC should be as competitive at the top as it has been in years, with Niagara and Fairfield legitimate threats, too.

"We've had a year with two [NCAA bids] in our league," McCaffery said. "I scheduled [so] if that does happen we would have a shot."

If the Saints live up to their own expectations they shouldn't fret, considering the thought at Siena is a national introduction in March won't be necessary if the Saints are already a known commodity from the start of the season.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.