The Canisius-Siena rivalry, one of the best in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference the last three years, heats up again when the teams meet tonight in the Koessler Center (7, Radio 1520).
Siena (13-6, 7-2) is tied for first in the MAAC with upstart Manhattan, which plays today at Niagara. Siena is 55-24 in its three seasons under coach Paul Hewitt, whose arrival in Albany came at the same time Mike MacDonald was promoted at Canisius to replace John Beilein. The Griffs are struggling this year at 4-14, 2-7.
MacDonald and Hewitt have split six mostly sensational meetings. Three have gone overtime (Canisius has won two) and two were decided in regulation by a single point. Naturally, the intensity of the games has spilled over into the relationship of the coaches.
MacDonald and Hewitt publicly speak highly of each other, but most observers of the programs realize the rivalry between the teams also includes one between the coaches.
The heat was turned up after the Griffs' 100-90 overtime win over Siena last year in Marine Midland Arena, a game that saw Canisius hit 40 free throws on a MAAC-record 63 attempts. When it ended, Canisius forward Jamie Cammaert screamed at Hewitt in a hallway adjacent to the court, claiming the Siena coach barely shook hands with more than a couple players before leaving the floor.
Tension escalated as Canisius and Siena both were involved in the recruitment of Southwestern High star Justin Miller. The Griffs dropped out of the race for Miller, who eventually picked Siena over St. Bonaventure.
At this year's MAAC media day in New York City, several sources say Hewitt became annoyed with MacDonald, who was sitting at an adjacent table and telling reporters the league race was simply a formality on Siena's route to the title. Hewitt often jokingly refers to MacDonald as "Lou Holtz," a reference to the Griffs' coach penchant for acting as Holtz did at Notre Dame by talking up the opponents on the eve of the big game.
The free throw situation did an about-face during Canisius' 89-77 loss Jan. 15 at Siena. The Griffs were 19 of 28 from the free-throw line, Siena was 36 of 41. Observers say MacDonald was reminding officials about the Saints' penchant for fouls (Siena leads the nation at 25.1 per game) and that didn't sit well with Hewitt.
"I hear it every game from the other bench," Hewitt said after the game. "I even heard a coach -- and I'm not going to tell you his name -- who quotes statistics to referees about how many fouls we have and how many fouls they have on the year. He may have been in the building tonight."
Reached by phone Friday, Hewitt downplayed those comments.
"It was a hard-fought game and I understand when coaches are frustrated," he said. ""I didn't think there was anything unusual about Mike's reaction. I'm the first to say I'm not the easiest one on officials either, especially when I lose."
"It's a good rivalry between teams that we respect and we respect each other as coaches," MacDonald said. "We have good competitive games. Believe me, I'm not smart enough to worry about my own team to worry about how many fouls Siena has. I have a lot of respect for what Siena has done. You have to. They've got a great program."
There's something everyone can agree on. Under Hewitt, Siena has once again become the model MAAC program it was in the early '90s under Mike Deane. The Saints start four seniors and a junior and have a rotation that goes 10-deep playing a frenetic pressing style. Siena is third in the nation in scoring (86.5 ppg).
"They are the team to beat," MacDonald said. "When they needed plays against us, they got them from their key guys, their upperclassmen. That's why they're so good."
"Mike is an excellent coach. He has a great way of poor-mouthing his team and building everybody else up," Hewitt said with a laugh. "You'd think he was coaching St. Mary's of the Poor."
Most MAAC teams leave the Buffalo area poor after this trip. Hewitt is 1-3 here gainst Canisius and Niagara.
"Those two teams are good. That's the reason it's a tough trip," Hewitt said. "When I was at Villanova (as an assistant from 1992-97), we beat St. John's at Alumni Hall and the reporters made a big deal about it. One of our other assistants pointed out to them that the building wasn't the problem, the players that were there are. Same thing here."
The University at Buffalo goes for its third straight win when it plays today at Ball State (1, Radio 1520). The Bulls (5-14, 3-7) beat Akron and Western Michigan at home this week, but remain winless on the road in MAC play in their two years in the conference. Ball State (11-7, 3-6) is tied for third in the West.