Here's the next in the series of the analysis of men's teams as they prepare for the MAAC tournament, a look at No. 2 Fairfield.
FAIRFIELD (13-5 in MAAC play, 20-9 overall).
RPI: No. 97
SEASON ANALYSIS: Anyone who saw this coming, considering two expected front-court starters, Greg Nero and Warren Edney, were lost for the season with preseason injuries, had a high-quality crystal ball. And, anyone who saw the Stags' success continuing after the mid-season loss of talented swingman Yorel Hawkins ... well, the likelihood is that no one expected this.
The hallmarks of coach Ed Cooley's tenure at Fairfield, though, are that his team works hard and overachieves. And this season has been more of the same. Despite the personnel losses, the cupboard wasn't totally bare. Anthony Johnson, a 6-foot-8, 250-pound inside force, has been one of the MAAC's top post players. And, freshman guard Derek Needham stepped in and played like something other than a freshman.
The 20 victories thus far have given the program its first 20-win season since 1995-96. All in all, a very successful ... and unexpected ... result.
HOW FAIRFIELD CAN WIN THE TOURNAMENT: With a continuation of its play thus far. Johnson has had back-to-back monster games (including a 24-point, 23-rebound effort vs. Niagara on Sunday). Teams can't single-guard Johnson, which leaves room for Needham to get off open shots. Needham is one of just four freshmen in MAAC history to average at least 15 points per game. It also has a serviceable big man in Ryan Olander and off-the-bench offense from 6-8 long-range shooter Mike Evanovich. Sophomore guard Sean Crawford, who had 25 points Sunday vs. Niagara, is also emerging Freshmen forward Shimeek Johnson and guard Colin Nickerson also look ready to contribute on this stage.
Also, the Stags come in with a small dose of confidence about their ability to play against Siena at the Times Union Center. Their in-season appearance resulted in a two-point (69-67) loss to the Saints, although Fairfield never had a late-game possession to either tie the game or take the lead. Still, it played Siena as well here as anyone.
WHY FAIRFIELD WON'T WIN: The 20 victories are nice, but other than an early season loss at Maryland the non-league opponents have all been mostly mediocre mid-majors. Also, the Stags rely heavily on young players, which isn't always a good thing come tournament time. There just isn't enough veteran talent here to expect Fairfield to beat Siena, if both teams get to the championship game.
PREDICTION: The Stags could easily lose in the semifinals (to either Iona or Niagara), but will likely advance to the championship contest before losing.
WHAT'S NEXT?: If Fairfield does get to the championship game, it clearly establishes itself as the MAAC team to be considered for an NIT berth, although its current RPI clearly has it on the proverbial bubble. If it loses before the championship game, then there won't be any NIT.
Beyond that ... if Nero, Edney and Hawkins all come back healthy next season, then Fairfield is the early favorite to win the 2010-11 regular-season championship.