The first thing you want to know from Fairfield coach Ed Cooley is if this year's start of 5-1 in conference play and 12-4 overall is a surprise ... because it is to anyone looking from the outside in.
His team is without arguably its best player, rugged 6-7 forward Greg Nero; and, 6-5 forward Warren Edney, who likely was going to be one of the better players in the MAAC this season.
On top of that, as recently as this past summer, there was uncertainty over whether 6-8, 250-pounder Anthony Johnson (blod clots) would be able to play again. And, Cooley was also handing the reins of the offense to an untested freshman point guard, Derek Needham.
On the other hand, maybe what Fairfield is doing isn't much of a surprise. After all, this is a team that dismissed its best player (point guard Jonathan Han) in midseason a year ago, lost Edney for the second half, lost Johnson for the majority of the season and had Nero battling a severe back injury that left him a shell of what he was prior to the injury.
And, last year's team finished 17-15 overall with as make-shift a group of players the program has probably ever had.
The Stags did it with a tenacity on both ends of the court, just hard-nosed play and a never-give-up attitude.
When a team does that for a few games, it's a credit to the players. But, when it continues to do so over seasons, then the coaching staff deserves considerable amounts of credit.
The Stags were 9-19 the year before Cooley's arrival and have been 56-54 since, relying more on its work ethic and tough defense than overall talent.
But, even without Edney and Nero this season (neither will play in 2009-10), there's probably as much talent in place as there has been in several years.
All of which has the Stags (5-1 in MAAC play, 12-4 overall) in position for an early season "big game" confrontation with first-place Siena (6-0, 13-4).
FAIRFIELD'S KEY PLAYERS
G-Derek Needham, 5-11 freshman (15.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, 5.5 assists)
G-Lyndon Jordan, 6-2 junior (6.8, 4.0)
C-Ryan Olander, 6-11 sophomore (6.6, 4.4)
F-Anthony Johnson, 6-8 senior (14.1, 9.1)
F-Yorel Hawkins, 6-5 junior (15.0, 5.8)
Mike Evanovich, 6-9 senior forward (5.9, 2.5)
Colin Nickerson, 6-2 freshman guard (3.1, 0.8)
Sean Crawford, 5-10 sophomore guard (3.5, 1.1)
"Until you beat the king (Siena), you're not going to get the respect," said Fairfield coach Ed Cooley. "But, big game? I've been asked that about 20 times already. We've got 12 league games remaining right now. This is a home game for us, and we play well at home. We want to establish home court, because we still have to go up there (to Albany, N.Y.) to play Siena.
"But other people are putting more emphasis on this being a big game than us. We know what we're up against. We've been to the circus before. We know they've got a lot of weapons, but we prepare for them like we prepare for any other game.
"This game, on paper, says it's the two best teams right now. Siena is definitely No. 1, it's the clear favorite. We're just trying to keep building a program.
"We are very proud of Anthony (Johnson). Last year, it was about 100 percent that he wouldn't return (for this season). But, give our medical staff a lot of credit. The fact that `AJ' is even playing is `Wow.' He is having a great year. He is incredibly focused. He's in unbelievable shape. And, he's still got some good games left in him."
Johnson isn't the only positive surprise for the Stags. Freshman point guard Needham is without question the top freshman in the league, and it has been many years since a first-year player has had the impact he has had thus far.
"I've only been in the league for a very short time, but as I look back in MAAC history, the impact he is having on our team as a freshman is pretty unique. If you sit down and meet Derek Needham you're talking to a man and not an 18-year old boy. He is way beyond his years in on-court intellect and passing. Still, he's got a lot to learn. He makes some turnovers in critical situations, still.
"But, I don't want anyone else in this league over Derek Needham. If you're starting a team, and you have a chance to pick anyone in our league, I'd pick Derek. And, this comes from a guy who thinks (Siena point guard) Ronald Moore is the best player in our league. But, they're different players. One (Needham) is a lead guard, and the other (Moore) is a true point guard."
- The Stags have lost their last three meetings with Siena, but handed the Saints one of their two home league losses in the 2007-08 season, earning a 53-52 victory at Albany's Times Union Center on Jan. 8, 2008. Slightly over three weeks later, Rider beat Siena at the TUC, 89-75 on Feb. 2, 2008. Siena hasn't lost a home game since, having an active 30-game winning streak.
- Fairfield is 8-0 in home games this season.
- Johnson ranks No. 1 in blocked shots per game with 2.4.
- Hawkins had made 34 consecutive free throws at one point this season before missing one. His .891 free-throw percentage this season leads the conference.
- Needham has been the conference's Rookie of the Week six times in the nine weeks the award has been given thus far.
- Three of Fairfield's four losses have been by signe digits, by nine against Niagara, by 5 against Rhode Island, and by 4 against Hofstra. Its other loss was by 29 against Maryland. All four losses have been on the road.