Here's another in the series previewing the upcoming men's MAAC post-season tournament:
No. 1 Fairfield (15-3, 23-6) vs. the winner of the Niagara-Marist game, Saturday, 4:30 p.m.
WHAT FAIRFIELD HAS: The best team in the league, as proven over 18 regular-season games. But, not an overwhelmingly so one in the mold of the past three Siena teams. The Stags, though, have an emerging big man in 7-foot-o junior Ryan Ohlendorf, who can clog up the middle defensively against anyone. They also have arguably the best backcourt in the league in sophomores Derek Needham and Colin Nickerson and freshman Jamal Fields. Needham, for sure, is as capable of taking over a game as any player in the league. The team also has smart veteran forwards in Warren Edney and Yorel Hawkins and an emerging freshman in Maurice Barrow, a candidate for Rookie of the Year honors. The Stags legitimately go nine deep in quality players and have a terrific coach in Ed Cooley who has produced with decimated rosters in past years. And, then, there's the defense: The Stags allow 59.6 points per game, sixth-best nationally.
WHAT FAIRFIELD DOESN'T HAVE: A second big man. Aside from Ohlendorf, the Stags' biggest player is 6-foot-5. Other than Needham (60 3-pointers), the team doesn't have another worrisome 3-point threat. But, that's almost nit-picking. Teams can beat Fairfield (three league teams have done so), but opponents have to be at their best to do so. The Stags play as efficiently as anyone and commit the third-fewest number of turnovers of any league team.
HOW FAIRFIELD CAN WIN: Just play like it has for most of the regular season, getting solid inside play from Ohlendorf and letting its guards make plays. And, a season-ending 74-69 loss at Iona might just have provided some extra incentive. "I'd love an opportunity to see these guys (Iona) again," said a feisty Cooley after that game. "...I'm looking forward to that opportunity (it would happen in the championship game), 'cause we didn't play for 32 minutes. They got our best shot for eight minutes. If that juices them up to play for 40 minutes, well, let the best man win when all the marbles are on the line." And, don't forget this: the tournament is being held on Fairfield's home court.
"I'm a fan of neutral sites, but I'm glad we're hosting this year," said Cooley. "We need to take advantage of it. We're hoping to make some magic. I'd be crazy to say playing at home wasn't an advantage. Ask Fran (former Siena coach Fran McCaffery), and he'll tell you. It's comfort. We're playing in our building. My seniors have played there for four years. We know all the surroundings. We're very fortunate that it's being played here this year. I hope 15,000 people come out to tatch us play, and our building only holds 10,000."
WHAT'S AT STAKE: A berth in the semifinals. And, there's as much at stake for the Stags as any team in the tournament in terms of what might follow. With an RPI in the high-80's right now, Fairfield isn't getting an at-large bid to the NCAA, so its only route there is by winning the conference tournament. Otherwise, it winds up playing in the NIT.