Saturday, July 2, 2011

Off-Season: More Success for Faifield Men

Here's another in the series looking at MAAC programs.

Up now ...


2010-11 RECORD: 15-3 in MAAC play, 25-8 overall.

2010-11 RECAP: It's awfully difficult to look at a regular-season conference title, a new program record for single-season victories (24-7 in 1985-86 was the previous best), and a victory in a national post-season tournament and see anything but overwhelming success. But ... the post-season tournament was the NIT. The chance at an NCAA berth was lost when Saint Peter's upset the Stags in the semifinal round of the MAAC tournament, at Fairfield's Arena at Harbor Yards home court, no less. And, then, more disappointment. Five-year head coach Ed Cooley, who took Fairfield through probably its most-successful five-year run in its Division I history, moved on to Providence. Along the way, though, there were plenty of bright spots. Sophomore guard Derek Needham had a nice season, 6-11 junior center Ryan Olander made major strides as a player and could really have a major impact in the coming year. Freshman 6-7 forward Maurice Barrow broke in well and showed signs of better things to come. Same with another freshman, guard Jamel Fields who was in the starting lineup by year's end. Seniors Yorel Hawkins and Warren Edney, both 6-5 swingmen returning from injuries, didn't quite play up to their pre-injury standards but both were solid contributors. The Stags won a first-round NIT game, 62-60, over Colorado State and, then, lost 62-58 in the second round to Kent State.

WHAT WENT RIGHT: A 1-3 start and a 1-2 finish, but a 23-3 record in between. Needham didn't quite have the season he had as a freshman, and Olander and Hawkins (10.1 ppg. each) tied as the team's No. 2 scorer. Mostly, points weren't easy to come by, but Fairfield more than made up for that by making scoring difficult for opponents, too. The Stags' 57.8 points-per-game average of opponents was No. 2 nationally. Cooley proved to be a terrific program architect and a master motivator. His direction of the program likely will be missed, but Johnson had great success at Princeton, lifting the Tigers to the Ivy League title this past season and a 25-7 record just three years removed from a 6-23 finish in 2007-08. It's a rarity that a MAAC school can attract a successful coach from another Division I program to fill an opening. That Fairfield did so is evidence of the financial support the school is willing to give the program, because Johnson didn't come cheaply.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Offense, expected to improve, just didn't materialize as expected. Needham, as talented a player as there is in the league (and your scribe picked him, in preseason, to be the conference's Player of the Year), fell off statistically. He averaged 14.1 ppg. as a soph, down from 16.4 as a freshman. His assist total dropped, too. And, his shooting percentages (.357 from the floor, including .309 from 3-point territory) left plenty to be desired. Nickerson, who had 14 and 10 points in the MAAC tournament's final two games as a freshman, also failed to make much improvement as a soph. He averaged 5.9 points, only a slight improvement from 5.5 as a freshman. Some of that might be attributed to better overall balance. Olander became more of an offensive force, and Barrow had a nice freshman season. Fields, another freshman, cut into Nickerson's minutes. And Hawkins and Edney were both able to play as seniors, although neither one looked as good as they did before injuries curtailed their respective careers (Edney missed all of 2009-10, while Hawkins missed more than half of it). Then, too, the saga of Greg Nero, a front-court warrior, went on. Nero battled a variety of injuries and other health woes in recent years and tried to play this past season, but finally gave it up only a few games into the season.

WHAT'S AHEAD: Should be many good years ahead. Fairfield will certainly contend with Iona for the regular-season crown with your scribe giving Iona the edge primarily because the Stags will have more transition (a new coach, two new key players) to deal with this season. But, if the new players (Wade and Sanders) can fit in quickly ... it would surprise no one if the Stags captured their second straight MAAC title. Wade is a lightning-quick point guard who, in two years at Houston, became one of just three players in that program's history to turn in back-to-back 100-assist seasons. And, Sanders had three-year scoring averages of 11.3, 12.9 and 11.3 at Boston College. He averaged 4.4 rebounds there as a junior and, at 6-foot-5, should help up front. Both could really impact Fairfield. Wade could allow Needham to work mostly as shooting guard, probably his best position. And Sanders could be among the best players in the MAAC. There is also considerable depth in the program. Four of the starters for the Stags' last few games this past season are back. This year's team has a nice blend of veterans, but the future beyond is solid, too, as only Olander and Sanders are seniors.

PREDICTION FOR 2011-12: We're predicting a second-place finish for Fairfield, but it should be a year-long battle with Iona for the top spot. If some positive chemistry develops within considerable transition, it's not hard to envision Fairfield winning a second-straight conference championship.

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