Refs steal the show from stars

Jackie Ricciardi/Staff
Augusta State center Garret Siler (left) played 23 minutes before fouling out of Monday night's game against USC Aiken. Siler was perfect from the field and finished with 10 points in the win.

What's it like to play basketball carrying 500 pounds under the glass?

Ask Garret Siler.

The 7-foot, nearly 300-pound Augusta State center is unlike anything else in Division II. Consequently, he's treated differently than anyone else in Division II.

Clearly the referees have no idea how to call a game around him. Opponents have the latitude to plant their full body weight on his hip and ribs. Siler gets no such slack if his long arms wave a breeze across the paint.

"Honestly, you've just got to be patient," said the usually sunny Siler. "Night in and night out that's what teams do against me. It's frustrating but you know that's part of the game."

More than 3,000 fans and one NBA scout gathered inside Christenberry Fieldhouse Monday night not only to see the first local contest of two top-10 teams, but to watch Siler and USC Aiken's Chris Commons. They got to see Siler for 23 minutes before he fouled out. Commons played 33, missing a crucial seven-minute stretch in the second half with four fouls. They each were the third leading scorers on their respective teams in Augusta State's 87-76 victory.

"With all the hype and everything in the paper, everybody came expecting to see a battle between me and him," said Siler, who never missed a shot and tallied 10 points.

Judging from the nearly constant chants of "Bad Call Ref!" the crowd didn't pay their money to watch Steve Coleman, Dan Striffyler and Bruce Bell blow their whistles all night and take the starch out of the most compelling matchup in Division II.

Augusta State coach Dip Metress admits we'll never get to see what Siler is capable of in the Peach Belt Conference. The biggest off-season workout the Jags' coaching staff created for the big man was splicing clips from every foul he committed in the last 12 games of last season to show him how to avoid the refs' radar.

"The toughest thing for him is he's got to play without fouling," Metress said.

That's especially tough when he has no true peers that can match up with him fairly.

At least four teams in the conference have attracted bigger players with only one year of eligibility to guard the mountain in the middle of the Jaguars lineup, but they can't match Siler's skill. So all they typically do is maul him for the opening minutes and hope to draw him into the inevitable foul trouble.

That's certainly what USC Aiken's strategy was with the combination of Brian Egwuatu and Seth Leonard beating on Siler mercilessly to force the Jaguars to depend on different weapons.

"I thought for the most part we did a good job on him," said Pacers coach Vince Alexander. "The only time he hurt us is when he got deep. He's going to hurt anyone in the country when he gets deep."

Certainly Miami Heat scout Bob Reinhart would agree. Rules will not allow the former Georgia State coach to either confirm or deny that he made Monday's night's Augusta-Aiken showdown one of the more than 20 he'll attend this month to see Siler and Commons. But it certainly seemed like he made a lot of notes whenever either one of them made a play.

"There are certainly players in this league who can play in the NBA," said Reinhart, leaving it at that.

Siler laughs at the notion. Five years ago he was nothing but a raw talent with one year of reserve high school experience at Richmond Academy. Now he's got pro scouts coming to assess him.

"It's interesting to see but I can't take it to heart," Siler said. "I'm still the little goofy guy from Richmond Academy."

That's not what the swelling crowds at Augusta State think of him.

Monday night's attendance outdrew last year's showdown of the two neighboring rivals.

"I wish we could have this kind of crowd every night," said Augusta State athletic director Clint Bryant.

There was certainly a football-ish fervor in the crowd that filled up both banks of bleachers and every inch of the baseline balconies, from the student section with painted faces to the Augusta State librarian with the painted head.

Rick Sulzycki has worked in the Augusta State library since 1994, but it was during the Jaguars' run to the NCAA Division II finals last year that inspired his new look on game day.

"I told them if they went to the finals, I'd shave my head," Sulzycki said.

He did, and Monday night he reprised the style. His wife, Patricia, painstakingly paints "ASU" across the sides of his smooth dome.

"As long as we're winning I'll do it every game day to stir up some school spirit," he said.

That's kind of Siler's philosophy as well.

"It's all going toward a win," Siler said. "I can have two points and I don't care as long as we win."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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