Another trip to the Big Dance for McCaffery

Well, another disappointing Penn basketball season has come to an end. And while there are many positives to pluck from the mess (Jerome Allen lighting a fire under the team and gaining the inside track to become the permanent head coach; Zack Rosen rightfully being named first-team All Ivy after a phenomenal season; Jack Eggleston earning a spot on the second team; a thrilling win over a then-Top 25 team; and a top-notch recruiting class set to join many quality returners), the fact remains this is the third straight year that Penn will miss out on March Madness – its longest drought since 1996-98.

Former Penn player and assistant coach Fran McCaffery hasn’t had such a problem. Over that same period of time, the man once known as “White Magic” has coached Siena to three straight NCAA Tournaments. And in his first two trips there, McCaffery has already won twice as many games (two) as Fran Dunphy did during his entire 17-year tenure at Penn (one), turning the Saints into a perennial upset darling of the Dance.

To get a pulse on things in upstate in New York, I shot a few questions over to the writers at the well-run Siena Saints Blog. Our chat is below:

PENN GAZETTE SPORTS: How much is Fran McCaffery beloved over there after a third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament?

SIENA SAINTS BLOG: I can tell you that Fran McCaffery is obviously loved by the community. Not only for winning but he does a great deal in the community. Yes Siena fans will always be hopeful that Fran will be here forever and whenever I hear him talk in the offseason, he sounds like a guy who really is happy with where he is at Siena. Plus three years of NCAA Tournament appearances give you some kind of job security.

PENN GAZETTE SPORTS: From those following from afar, what can people expect from Siena in the tourney? After two straight first-round wins, are fans hoping for Sweet 16 or better this time around?

SIENA SAINTS BLOG: The expectations game will be raised over the next week but when it comes down to the NCAA Tournament, it’s all about where you’re seeded and where you play. Siena had an almost impossible route to get to the regionals last year but still played Louisville extremely close. However, depending on Siena’s seed, they’re going to draw a (likely) major conference team capable of not showing up against the Saints veteran experience.

PENN GAZETTE SPORTS: What specifically has McCaffery done to build such a premier mid-major program in such a short period of time?

SIENA SAINTS BLOG: McCaffery started with recruiting, getting Kenny Hasbrouck as his first recruit who has since graduated and is playing in the NBA D-League. Add to him his first full class of the big three, Ronald Moore, Alex Franklin and Edwin Ubiles, and there was a core for a championship. After they lost in their first championship game in Bridgeport, they haven’t been stopped in the conference. After that class, Fran has recruited a ton of players including juniors Clarence Jackson and Ryan Rossiter, who both made All-MAAC teams this year. Fran also went out and grabbed players with lots of upside like O.D. Anosike — who turned down Big East offers to be a Saint and has shown flashes of potential – as well as Owen Wignot and Kyle Downey, who, respectively, will likely be the small forward and a key 3-point presence at the point next year. The success has come in getting good recruits, developing them into their roles and letting them play.

PENN GAZETTE SPORTS: What are people saying about the handshake incident? What is McCaffery’s reputation among the media and other coaches?

SIENA SAINTS BLOG: On the court, Fran is an intense guy. On our site, we barely have video of him breaking into a smile until when he cut down the net Monday night. At that quarterfinal game I was sitting next to the Rider coaches who were scouting the Saints and they were all in agreement, as the Saints began to pull away, the chances of something ugly happening were exponential. I’m pretty sure that if they were in Fran’s shoes they might have faced the same decision and made the same choice.

Fran is well liked among the media, except for one writer who happened to ask the question that set him off Saturday. I’m all for good journalism, and the reporter is trying to do his job when he asks the question, but if you get stopped twice and then use your column to lash out at the coach then you didn’t really do your job.

PENN GAZETTE SPORTS: Has there been any talk about McCaffery bolting for a major-conference job? I know Siena has become a better team than Penn over the past few years, but does anyone think he’d ever want to return to his alma mater?

SIENA SAINTS BLOG: I’ve thought about this and yes, Siena fans who hope Fran will stay forever might be kidding themselves, I think the optimal job that Fran would bolt for is a super-high major job or a Big 5 job.

I just got through reading Outside the Limelight (great book by the way) and it took me back to Fran’s Siena coaching debut against Penn (in 2005-06). You have to think Penn would make the phone call but Siena will be willing to do anything right now to keep Fran happy in Loudonville. And with Fran Dunphy departing Penn for Temple, Jay Wright extended until 2013 at Villanova and Phil Martelli extended until 2016 at St. Joe’s, Fran would have to wait a while for another Big 5 job.

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