TAMPA, Fla. (AP)—Over the past few days, the Siena Saints have been constantly hearing that they’re a popular pick to pull off a monumental first round NCAA tournament upset.
The Saints find it flattering.
Vanderbilt, um, not so much.
For the second straight year, all the Commodores did was win twenty-something games, finish among the best teams in the Southeastern Conference and earn a high NCAA seed. And once again, fourth-seeded Vanderbilt (26-7) is being tabbed by bracketeers as a possible first-round upset victim. The Commodores face the 13th-seeded Saints (22-10) on Friday night.
“I think, last year and this year to some degree, we’ve been made to feel like we’re the underdog in this game,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “And that’s OK. If people want to pick other teams—and they did so last year — that’s OK. None of that matters. What matters is how we play.”
The slights, perceived or otherwise, fueled Vanderbilt last year to a 77-44 first-round romp over George Washington.
Siena, the champions of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, can only hope it doesn’t meet the same fate.
“Our players are smart,” Siena coach Fran McCaffery said. “They’re going to be able to watch the film and see how good Vanderbilt is. But we’re coming into this game feeling like we have a legitimate chance to win.”
If Siena is going to actually pull this off, it needs an answer for guard Shan Foster, the SEC player of the year.
Foster spent most of his season shredding just about every defense the rugged SEC could throw his way. He was the league’s unanimous pick for top-player honors. He scored 32 points to lead his team past Tennessee when the Vols were ranked No. 1 in the country.
When he hears this Vandy’s-ripe-for-an-upset talk, he just shakes his head in disbelief.
“We’ve won 26 games. We’re not a 4 seed by a miracle, you know?” Foster said. “We’re confident that we’re going to go in and execute our game plan and give it all we’ve got and come out with a victory. Really, that’s all that matters. We say every day in practice, the only thing that matters is those guys on the court and our coaching staff.”
At Siena, though, huge upsets are part of the tiny school’s lore.
It was 19 years ago when the Saints beat Stanford 80-78 in the first round of the NCAAs, and to this day, when you mention “the Stanford win” to anyone associated with Siena’s program, they know you’re not talking about when the Cardinal came into Albany earlier this season and got beat 79-67.
“That’s the novelty of a small school,” said Siena radio commentator Tom Huerter, who played on that ’89 team. “We’re the second-smallest school in this tournament by enrollment. We’re the quintessential underdog, like we were that year. But what made that story is the fact that we won.”
Beating Vanderbilt would surely classify as another defining moment.
“This is an opportunity that’s not guaranteed,” Siena guard Tay Fisher said. “We work hard to get here. Not many people know about us. Many people can’t even spell Siena. Many people don’t even know where it’s at.”
A win here would show people where Siena—that’s Siena, not Sienna—is, for certain.
But Vanderbilt feels like it has something significant to prove, too.
Vanderbilt went all the way to the round of 16 last year and felt like it should have advanced even farther. The Commodores led Georgetown by one in the final seconds before Jeff Green got a controversial layup—most Vandy fans insist he traveled—and capped the Hoyas’ 66-65 win.
“That’s been a motivation of ours all season,” Vanderbilt forward Ross Neltner said. “We feel like we let our seniors down last year and it wasn’t just one call. There were multiple plays throughout the game where we could have made up a few points, hit a few free throws, gotten an extra stop or two and it wouldn’t have come down to that.”
Only one Siena player—Josh Duell, who played for Vermont when the 13th-seeded Catamounts upset No. 4 Syracuse three years ago—has been to the NCAAs.
But McCaffery, who inherited a 6-24 team three years ago, has plenty of tournament experience.
He’s the 31st coach to take three schools to the NCAA tournament; he got there with Lehigh in 1988 as a 28-year-old, and took UNC-Greensboro there in 2001. He also played in the NCAAs three times, and the Siena hope is that somehow his experience will lead to making those upset plans a reality.
“I can’t emphasize enough how special it is, how thrilling an accomplishment it is,” McCaffery said, “to play in the greatest sports extravaganza in this country.”