Friday, February 18, 2011

MAAC Crown Fits Fairfield Now, In Future

Le Roi est mort, vie le Roi!

Translation: "The King is dead, long live the King!"

The origin is the French version which traces roots back to the early 1400s, a proclamation of the accession of a new monarch for France.

And, now, it fits in the MAAC.

The new "King" is Fairfield, off to a 14-2 start in conference play. With the team's win over Marist on this past Wednesday and with just two league games remaining the Stags have clinched their first MAAC regular-season title since the 1995-96 season.

Actually Fairfield only shared the 1995-96 crown as its 10-4 record was tied with Iona's. The Gaels, though, were that season's No. 1 seed for the post-season tournament by virtue of tie-breakers.

The last time Fairfield won an outright conference title was 1985-86 when it finished 13-1 in MAAC play.

This year the Stags have outright possession of the league throne, displacing previous "King" Siena, which had won both the conference title and advanced to the NCAA tournament, by virtue of winning the MAAC's post-season tournament, in each of the past three seasons.

It appears that Fairfield is set up for that type of run now.

Although it will lose forwards Warren Edney and Yorel Hawkins, the team's No. 3 and No. 4 scorers, to graduation after this season there is not only much still in place but more-than-adequate replacements coming aboard.

The team has a returning and emerging big man in junior 7-footer Ryan Olander, a sophomore (Derek Needham) at guard who is one of the conference's best players, two other underclass guards in freshman Jamal Fields and sophomore Colin Nickerson and Rookie of the Year candidate forward Maurice Barrow.

As if that's not enough the program has two other key pieces in place in transfers Rakim Sanders, formerly of Boston College; and point guard Desmond Wade, formerly of Houston.

Sanders, a 6-5 swingman, has one remaining season of eligibility. He started regularly at BC, averaging 12.9 points as a sophomore and 11.3 points as a junior last season. The 5-8 Wade, who has two seasons of eligibility left, started 31 of 35 games at Houston last season and averaged 4.8 assists.

Both Sanders and Wade are practicing with the team this season and Cooley heaps much credit on their work on the practice court that enables current eligible players to work against better opponents every day while preparing for upcoming games.

And, then, it appears like another big man is coming aboard. There are reports that 6-11, 230-pounder Vince Van Nes out of Northfield (Mass.) Mount Hermon Prep School has given the Stags a verbal commitment and will sign a national letter of intent during this spring's late signing period.

But, that's getting ahead of things. This season is still ongoing and while the regular-season crown is nice, fifth-year head coach Ed Cooley knows there is much left to do.

Or, as he said: "There is still a long way to go."

Such as winning the conference's post-season tournament and the resultant automatic bid to the NCAA's.

That, though, goes through the Stags' home court as the conference tournament will be held at the Webster Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport, Ct.

"That's something we have to take advantage of," said Cooley. "I'm a big proponent of playing the event on a neutral court, but I didn't make the decision to play here. Yet because it's here ... we have to take advantage of the situation."

Already, though, this year's team has done plenty. It has 21 overall victories and will likely surpass the program's all-time best single-season victory total of 23 set last season.

Fairfield's current success, and what might be added to it in future years was almost easy to see coming.

After a 7-11 MAAC finish in 2005-06 the school replaced Tim O'Toole with Cooley and things got better almost immediately.

Cooley's first four seasons resulted in records of 10-8, 11-7, 9-9 and 13-5 last year. Including this season Cooley's record in MAAC play thus far is an impressive 57-31.

Yet, until this season, Cooley has never had a full roster as a variety of injury to key players left his team shorthanded for most of his tenure.

Last year's team, for instance, missed both Edney and another standout forward Greg Nero for the entire season while Hawkins missed the second half of the year.

Despite those losses the Stags went to last season's MAAC championship game and were a missed shot at the buzzer in regulation in that contest of upsetting Siena.

Afterwards Cooley said he'd like to have a completely healthy team and, then, to see what would happen.

He has that this year, and his counterparts knew what could happen when they made Fairfield the preseason choice to capture this year's conference crown.

But good coaches win when their team is favored and exceed expectations otherwise and Cooley has done all of that so far.

The key for Fairfield has been depth of talent, and that's no different this season.

"Our leading scorer (Needham) only averages a little over 14 points," pointed out Cooley. "We spread it around. That's what makes this so unique."

The other hallmark of Cooley's Fairfield teams is defense, and the current group allows an average of 57.9 points per contest which is No. 3 of 345 Division I teams nationally.

It has all created a justifiable sense of pride within the program that had struggled for more than a decade before Cooley's arrival.

But, maybe league-wide respect hasn't totally arrived yet.

Niagara coach Joe Mihalich, the conference's proverbial "dean" of coaches whose perspective on
things related to the MAAC is as good as anyone's, had this to say recently about the state of this year's overall conference strength:

"There's nobody in the league as good as we were the last three or four years and there's no one as good as Siena was the last three or four years. If that's going to upset [Fairfield coach] Ed Cooley or [Iona coach Tim Cluess], that's OK."

And, of course that upsets Cooley a little.

"I disagree with Joe (about Niagara's league status compared to Fairfield's, at least last season)," noted Cooley. "I recall that we beat them in back-to-back games last season (the second regular-season meeting and, then, in the MAAC tournament) and that we finished 13-5 in league play and in second place to Siena.

"We might not be there (as dominant as Siena's recent past) just yet, but who knows? Records are what they are. I personally don't think anyone is as good as Siena was in the last three years, but everything else is up in the air."

But what is no longer up in the air is this: There's a new "King" in the MAAC this season, one that appears to be settling into its throne and, maybe, staying there for several years to come.

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