Siena Saints (18-17) vs. Fresno State Bulldogs (20-16)
WHEN: Game 1 - March 31, 7:00 PM PST; Game 2 - April 2, 4:00 PM PST; Game 3 (if necessary) - April 5, 4:00 PM PST
WHERE: Game 1 will be played at the Save Mart Center in Fresno. Games 2 and 3 will be hosted by Siena at the Alumni Recreation Center in Loudonville, NY.
TV: All three games will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.
RADIO: The Fresno broadcast can be heard on the local ESPN affiliate, 940 AM, while the Siena feed can be found in and around New York State's Capital Region on 104.5 FM.
LAST MEETING: The Bulldogs and Saints have never met.
The titans of the college basketball world will clash in Arlington next week, but you'll have to forgive fans in the Central Valley and upstate New York if they have their attention focused elsewhere until that time. This year's College Basketball Invitational has taken a few unexpected turns, and the result is a most inspired matchup between two programs peaking at the right time.
It's hard to tell which team is the bigger longshot in this scenario. After a run of three straight NCAA tournament appearances ended in 2010, Siena head coach Fran McCaffery bolted for Iowa and the Saints fell on hard times. A ninth-place finish in the MAAC last season prompted a regime change, with Jimmy Patsos coming from former conference rival Loyola (Maryland) to replace Mitch Buonaguro, and the team responded by rebounding to a respectable fifth place.
A four-game winning streak was halted by Canisius in the MAAC tournament, the one team above all that they could not seem to solve, but the Saints were happy to accept a CBI berth despite their sub-.500 record. Then, of course, they kept winning: Siena upended Stony Brook, shocked Penn State in the closing moments, and toppled Illinois State to earn a trip to Fresno.
Fresno State has experienced a similar journey, getting outclassed by San Diego State in the regular season finale and by New Mexico in the Mountain West conference tournament. However, the Bulldogs have defeated nearly all other challengers since the beginning of February, and the 9-3 run to close out the season was enough to convince the CBI to extend an invitation. They've made the organizers look prescient since then, taking down UTEP on the road before coming home to dominate Princeton and Old Dominion.
Both teams have decided home court advantages, which makes the best-of-three format particularly compelling this season. No matter who comes out on top, though, both fanbases have bright futures.
What to Watch - Siena: The Saints' offense is perhaps one rung below Fresno State's, so it shouldn't be a surprise that their recent winning ways have been fueled by their two top scorers. Junior guard Rob Poole is the team's best three-point shooter, and sophomore forward Brett Bisping presents a challenge in the frontcourt. Chances are they will again be responsible for the lion's share of points, so the series may hinge on whether anyone else steps up.
That being said, Siena's X-factor is sixth man Evan Hymes. On a per 40 minutes basis, Hymes tops the Saints in both scoring and turnovers. He also happens to be Siena's best free throw shooter, which means he could play a critical role down the stretch if the games are close.
Another wrinkle worth considering is that the Saints have benefited from poor free-throw shooting by their opponents in the CBI. Penn State and Illinois State were both under 55% from the line, while Fresno State is a healthy 73% for the season and boast two players (Tyler Johnson and Cezar Guerrero) who shoot at least 80%. In other words, this particularly charmed existence is not going to last.
What to Watch - Fresno State: Excepting the absurd offensive performance by SDSU, one statistic that jumps out in Fresno's defensive profile is that the Bulldogs have really put the clamps on other teams' three-point shooting. In the last ten games, opponents have hit just 26.5% of shots from behind the arc, a figure that drops to 23.4% if you removed the Aztecs from the equation. That figure would have been far and away the best in the nation over the course of the entire season, but it mirrors the overall improvement in defense in the same stretch. The Miners, Tigers and Monarchs were a combined 35% from the floor, so against a Siena team that is middling (at best) on offense, this could be a huge edge.
When the Bulldogs hit the road, keep an eye on Paul Watson. Among the four players who have averaged double-digits in scoring, it is the Mountain West freshman of the year who is arguably the most proficient scorer (Tyler Johnson being the other with the strongest case) away from the Save Mart Center. Seven of Watson's top ten scoring performances were on the road, and that doesn't even account for the fact that he tallied 13 and 15 points in the recent home wins against Princeton and Old Dominion, respectively.