Here's the last preview of MAA men's teams. Up now ...
2009-10 RECORD: 13-5 in MAAC play, 23-11 overall.
COACHES' PREDICTION: Picked to finish first in the preseason poll of conference coaches.
KEY RETURNEES: 5-11 sophomore guard Derek Needham 916.4 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists), 6-3 sophomore guard Colin Nickerson (4.5 points, 1.8 rebounds), 6-11 junior center Ryan Olander (5.9 points, 4.2 rebounds), 6-7 senior forward Greg Nero (hurt last season), 6-5 senior forward Yorel Hawkins (14.6 points, 5.5 rebounds), 6-5 senior forward Warren Edney (hurt last season).
KEY LOSS: Forward Anthony Johnson (16.1 points, 9.8 rebounds).
NOTES: It's no stretch to think fifth-year head coach Ed Cooley is the best at his profession in the MAAC. His first four seasons resulted in 67 wins, more than any Stag coach after four seasons in history. Despite far more than his share of injuries over the past two seasons (Johnson missed 2008-09; Edney and Nero missed last year and Hawkins missed the second half of the season), his teams have been 17-15 two years ago and 23-11 last season. The 23-11 record was the program's best since it went 24-7 in 1985-86.
Last season very nearly was even better. Fairfield held a 13-point lead over Siena with 18 minutes in the championship game of the MAAC tournament before losing in overtime. Still, Siena had to sweat out a last-second shot in regulation by Nickerson that hit the back iron before falling out. The Stags then advanced to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament and faced a 27-point deficit with 16 minutes remaining before rallying to win in overtime.
There is certainly plenty of talent here, but the question remains as to its health.
Nero isn't all the way back from a back injury, and has played an average of 14 minutes in the team's first two games. Edney is averaging 10 points per game so far, and appears to be more advanced physically than Hawkins.
Then, there's the huge inside loss of Johnson, one of the league's top two inside players a year ago. Junior center Olander is averaging 7.5 rebounds thus far, but replacing Johnson is a by-committee effort. Olander, Nero, Edney and Hawkins will all have to contribute.
There are no such worries in the backcourt, which employs two sophomores and might already be among the top two or three guard tandems in the MAAC. Needham's freshman season was one for the ages at this level. Only three other players in conference history previously averaged 15 points per game as freshmen, Saint Peter's Keydren Clark, La Salle's Lionel Simmons and Rider's Jerry Johnson. Nickerson started slow, but came on and averaged 9.7 points and 5.0 rebounds in the MAAC tournament's three games.
So far, the Stags have used nine players an average of at least 10 minutes per game, so there's depth here, too.
HOW FAIRFIELD WILL SUCCEED: By being healthy, simple as that. If Nero, Edney and Hawkins continue to mend as the season progresses, then Fairfield will live up to the preseason expectations. If even two of those three play close to full strength this season, it should be enough. Olander looks ready to take a nice step forward. Needham and Nickerson can play with any guard tandem in the league, and guards win games at this level. Everything is here ... fire power, depth and, even, a strong inside game if the health holds up. And, here's the best news: the MAAC tournament will be played at the Arena at Harbor Yard this season, Fairfield's home court.
COACH'S COMMENTS: "Can Needham improve? He needs to cut down on his turnovers," said coach Cooley. "Nero is doing well. He brings energy to practice. Olander needs to act like he's been there before. If we're healthy and we stay on the same page as a team, then we can have some success this season."
PREDICTION: This blogger has been predicting Fairfield to win the 2010-11 MAAC championship since the minute last season ended, and there's no reason to think otherwise yet. Needham is likely to have an even better sophomore season as he continues on a career that eventually should rank among the best by any conference player. And, if the health holds up he'll have plenty of weapons around him as opposed to a year ago when he pretty much only had Johnson to help out on the offensive end over the second half of the season. Again, it's all about health. If the bodies hold up, so will the prediction for first place.