Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Off-Season Report: Stags Early No. 1 Pick

Here's the latest in the "10 Teams in 10 Days" series looking back and ahead at MAAC men's programs. Up now ...

FAIRFIELD (13-5 in the MAAC, 23-11 overall)

FINAL 2009-10 RPI: No. 81 of 347 Division I teams nationally.

RECAP: The season started poorly, with word that expected front-court starters 6-7 Greg Nero (back) and 6-4 Warren Edney (knee) would miss the season. Midway through the season, another key player, second-leading scorer Yorel Hawkins, a 6-5 forward, suffered a knee injury and missed the final 15 games. But, everything else was good. Center Anthony Johnson, who missed much of the 2008-09 season with a life-threatening blood-clot issue, returned to full health and became the conference's best post player. Freshman guard Derek Needham was handed the proverbial keys to the car and ran it like an veteran Indy driver. Needham was one of the league's all-time great freshmen. That one-two punch was supported by a solid group of role players. The result was the program's best record since a 24-7 finish in the 1985-86 season and just its fifth 20-victory season in 46 years on the Division I level. The Stags got to the MAAC championship game before losing and, then, won a first-round contest in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament before its season ended.

WHAT WENT RIGHT: The return to health of Johnson and the immediate impact of Needham, who became just the fourth freshman in league history to average at least 15 points per game, provided as good an inside-outside combo there was in the league. The team not only survived health issues for the second straight year, but actually thrived despite the personnel shortage as previously lightly used bench players moved into key supporting roles. It was enough for Fairfield to win a showdown late-season game with Iona to secure second place in the regular-season standings, and for the Stags to win two league tournament games and, then, hold a 13-point lead over Siena with 18 minutes remaining in the championship game before the Saints stormed back to force overtime and, eventually, win. Still, Siena had to survive a last-second shot by Colin Nickerson at the end of regulation that bounced off the rim at the buzzer. But that wasn't the end of the considerable excitement provided by the Stags. In the CollegeInsider.com event, Fairfield fell behind by 27 points, 63-36, with 16 minutes left against George Mason, on the Patriots' home court. And, then, the Stags rallied to win in overtime. The result accounted for the greatest comeback in terms of overcoming a point deficit, in the history of Division I post-season play. And, then, the program had a nice off-season, retaining coach Ed Cooley who was a strong candidate in Boston College's search for a new coach.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Obviously, the injuries to three key players. Still, how much better could the won-loss record have been? And, a slew of younger players got valuable on-court experience. The Stags weren't likely to have beaten out Siena for the regular-season crown even if everyone was healthy. They still got their second-place finish and set themselves up very nicely for the coming season. What else went wrong? The team seemed to rattle under the pressure applied on-court by Siena's pressure and off-court by a loud crowd of 10,679 setting new decibel levels in the Saints' Times Union Center arena during the conference championship game. The result was eight of their 11 turnovers in the final 17 minutes of regulation play in that contest. After the season ended, 6-7 freshman forward Shimeek Johnson, a part-time starter, announced he was leaving the program. But, Fairfield can survive that loss.

WHAT'S AHEAD: Most teams might look back at last season and think what might have been. But, in truth, the Stags probably were a little too young to do more than they did and, surely, the focus is on what's next, which should be a terrific Needham-led era. Teams with the league's best player traditionally are strong contenders, and Needham, even as a sophomore, will arguably be the MAAC's best player for the next three seasons. Ryan Olander, a 6-11 sophomore center, showed signs of being a significant contributor. Hawkins and Edney are expected to be back by the start of next season. If Nero comes back, too, the Stags will have the conference's best front-court rotation as well as the best point guard. Nickerson, a freshman who averaged 9.7 points and 5.0 rebounds in the MAAC tournament, looks like a strong sidekick for Needham. Guards Lyndon Jordan and Sean Crawford also showed enough to compete for starting spots or, more likely, be productive bench players. Jamal Fields a 6-2 guard, appears to be the top incoming recruit, but the team won't need much, if anything, from next season's freshman class if everyone stays healthy. The only significant loss is Johnson, literally a big one, but the front-court will be well-stocked if everyone returns healthy. And, then, there's this: The MAAC tournament will be played at the Arena at Harbor Yard next season. Could there ever be a better time for the Stags to have the event on their home court.

PREDICTION FOR 2010-11: After losing to Siena in the MAAC championship game, third-year coach Ed Cooley had this to say: "Just once I'd like to coach a healthy team." Cooley has done pretty well with teams decimated by injury, well enough for his name to be strongly in the debate about the conference's top coach. And, then, when reminded that his home court will be the site of the tournament championship game this coming season, Cooley responded with a deep laugh. If Needham improves just a little, he will dominate this conference for the next three years. If the injury situations are resolved - and, there's no reason right now to think they won't be - Fairfield is the clear front-runner for a championship next season. Right now, the Stags are an easy choice as next season's top team.

1 comment:

stagmaster said...

Good report Steve.
The era of the Stags at the top of the MAAC has begun!