Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Much To Look Forward To for Fairfield

Had its last shot at the buzzer in regulation fallen, had it played with just a little more composure during a game-turning stretch in the second half or had any particular play at any juncture been less successful for Siena, then Fairfield would have been this year's MAAC tournament champion headed to the NCAA tournament.

That's how close the Stags came to completing the most-improbable of accomplishments. For sure, no one expected anything like this four months ago when the program learned that it would be playing the season without starting forwards Greg Nero and Warren Edney. Or, when it had to play the last five weeks of the season without starting swingman Yorel Hawkins.

Somehow, though, Fairfield patched together a lineup that saw freshmen and sophomores play 145 of the available 225 minutes in Monday night's tournament championship game 72-65 loss to Siena in overtime.

Think that doesn't bode well for how strong the Stags might be next year?

A little bit about this year, first.

The program unearthed a gem of a freshman in 5-foot-11 point guard Derek Needham, arguably one of the top three or four first-year players in the MAAC's 29-year history. This blogger ranks him No. 3 all-time among MAAC freshmen, behind only La Salle's Lionel Simmons and Saint Peter's Keydren Clark.

Another freshman, 6-4 guard Colin Nickerson, who averaged 10.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.0 assists in Fairfield's last seven games, looks like he could join Needham to become potentially the conference's best backcourt for the next three seasons they're together.

Senior big man Anthony Johnson, a 6-8, 250-pound mound of power inside overcame blood-clot issues that forced him to miss most of the previous year to become a force in the paint this season.

It was enough for Fairfield to somehow put together a 22-10 overall record that is likely to be good enough (the Stags ranked No. 82 in the Ratings Percentage Index prior to Monday's game) to get an invitation to the NIT.

But head coach Ed Cooley didn't sound like that would be a season-fulfilling opportunity.

"I don't know where the bracketologists have us in terms of some minor-league tournament," Cooley said not long after Monday's game. "I came here to get us to the big tournament (the NCAA's).

"Still, I'll be happy to play in one of the other tournaments if they allow us. Whoever wants us ... we'll play well and we'll represent the conference in a first-class manner."

For sure, though, it might have been the "big" tournament, the NCAA's, had the Stags just handled Siena's pressure defense a little better in the second half when it committed even turnovers in a 10-minute stretch that saw Siena come from 13 points behind to tie the game with 7:45 left to play.

"We had younger guys on the floor, that led to turnover mistakes, and they (Siena) took advantage of it," admitted Cooley."

Monday's game, though, was almost certainly a beginning rather than a culmination for what this blogger sees as the program best set up for Siena-like domination in the 2011-12 season and, maybe, beyond.

Players who filled 163 of the 225 available minutes in Monday's game return.

The biggest losses are Johnson and long-range shooting forward Mike Evanovich.

But, if Nero is healthy and can play next season, he is a reasonable replacement for Johnson.
Current sophomore Ryan Olander, a 6-11 post player, showed considerable improvement since his freshman season and should be even more of a factor next year.

Hawkins and Edney, along with the natural maturation of this year's freshmen, will make the Stags considerably more potent offensively a year from now.

"Having our young guys through something like this helps them tremendously in terms of experience," said Cooley.

The Stags' coach said he expects Hawkins and Edney to be at full strength next season. Nero's situation, though, isn't so certain.

"I know that I would love to coach a healthy team," he said.

Cooley has already proven what he can do with even a semi-healthy team.

"We will ... WE WILL ... be in this game again," said the Fairfield coach in emphatic fashion.

This game, next year, will even be on the Stags' home court at the Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport, Conn.

When reminded of that shortly after Monday's championship game, Cooley's response was a resounding burst of laughter.

For sure, things should be fun for Fairfield next season.

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