Thursday, September 8, 2011

Italy Trip Builds Familiarity for Fairfield

When considering a new job, college coaches look at a variety of factors.

New Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson says he looked primarily at three things when he was considering a departure from his former position as head coach at Princeton to taking over the Stags.

"Believe it or not the first two things I looked at were whether the school was academically strong, and whether the support from administration and the athletic department were there," said Johnson.

Fairfield certainly has solid academics, and the athletic commitment, at least related to men's basketball, has grown significantly in recent years not only with the school's full-time move to the Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport, Ct., for games but in terms of financial support that includes his salary that has been reported to be in the range of $400,000 annually. That figure likely makes him the conference's highest paid coach.

It was only after his positive perception of those criteria were satisfied did he start looking at his third consideration, the talent in place within the Fairfield program.

When he began watching films of last year's games he had to like what he saw there, too.

The Stags not only return four players who each started at least 18 games a year ago, including the team's top two returning scorers and top two rebounders, but a fifth player with 11 starts in 2010-11.

Add to that two highly talented transfers who become eligible for the coming season, and Johnson inherited a wealth of strong personnel as he tries to duplicate a regular-season championship (15-3 in conference play) from a year ago and a school-record 25-victory total.

But there's one thing Fairfield hasn't done yet in its recent era of resurgence that includes a MAAC-best 48-19 overall record over the past two seasons: earn a berth in the NCAA tournament.

"We hope our team can be better than it has been," said Johnson, certainly aware that qualifying for an NCAA berth is about the only thing the Stags haven't accomplished over the past two seasons.

"I really do believe that we'll challenge to win the conference," he said. "I'd be very disappointed if we're not in the mix for an opporunity to win the championship. But, to say that we're favorites ... we've got a challenging non-league schedule to prepare us for conference play and the MAAC is a very challenging league.

"The one thing that impressed me going from the Big East (as a Georgetown assistant) to Princeton was the quality of coaches in the Ivy League," he said. "And, after watching film of last year's games of teams in the MAAC, I've got the same respect for coaches in this league. There's a lot of talent in this league, and it's well-coached. We know trying to win a championship is going to be a struggle."

A struggle that might have been made even more so with a new coach (former coach Ed Cooley move on to take over at Providence) and two new potential starters (incoming transfers wing Rakim Sanders and point guard Desmond Wade).

But Johnson and his team got a break, an early opportunity to get acquainted and develop team bonding and chemistry, in the form of an already scheduled 10-day trip to play games in Italy last month. The summer trip also allowed Johnson to bring his team together for 10 practice days in preparation for playing overseas, an opportunity not allowed teams that don't make international trips.

"That gave us a big advantage," said Johnson. "My challenge as a first-year coach is to have our guys as prepared as possible for when the season starts.

"Because of the practices and games that we've already had ... now when the guys came in (for the just-begun fall semester), they spend spend time catching up and not just finding out about each other. We've already had 10 days of practices and 10 days in Italy playing games. We're extremely fortunate for that.

"Now we don't have to get to know each other. Now, when practice starts we can concentrate on competition rather than concentrating on new technology. We've put in some things already. They already know how i like to do things and I know how they like to do things. We've become familiar with each other."

In other words, Fairfield got an early opportunity to develop team chemistry that it otherwise would just be starting to do right now. It was an opportunity for Johnson to at least introduce his practice routines and general style of play this summer rather than doing it when pre-season practices begin in October.

"On top of the practices we've had four good games in Italy," added Johnson. "It has helped us determine roles and to start to come together. It was a help, but we've still got challenges."

Not the least of those is figuring how Wade and Sanders, transfers from Houston and Boston College, respectively, fit into the playing group and, potentially, the starting lineup.

Wade, who has two seasons of eligibility, comes in after being one of just three players in Houston history with at least 100 assists in back-to-back seasons. The 5-foot-8 point guard could allow junior Derek Needham, the team's top scorer while also running the point the past two years, to move over to the off-guard and concentrate even more on producing points, which is what he does best.

"All I can say is that if Derek stays healthy, considering all the things he's done in the last two years, he's going to be on the floor a lot," said Johnson. "Whether he plays point, or 2-guard, I don't care ... he's just going to be in there. He's a natural-born leader and a skilled player who helps us be a better team. He'll probably start the season doing a little bit of both."

Johnson, though, knew all about Needham long before he ever saw the 5-11 guard on the court. Needham's reputation, and ability that could be clearly seen in game tapes, certainly gave Johnson a hint of what to expect from him.

But Johnson said his biggest surprise came after getting a first-hand look at Sanders, who already has 1,048 career points from his three seasons at Boston College.

"We knew he was an accomplished player who performed well against Atlantic Coast Conference opponents," said Johnson. "So, no one was surprised by his talent and ability. But we were impressed with how smart he is as a player. He plays the game the right way, he does the right things on the court. He makes good decisions. It's easy to be impressed by his size and strength, but it was something to see how versatile he is as a player."

Considering all that Fairfield currently has in place, it shouldn't be much of a surprise to see the Stags repeat as the conference's regular-season titlist.

That might not have always been the perception. Iona, which went through its own coaching change and the adjustment to a new key player (Mike Glover) last season, now has that full sense of familiarity and, for sure, will challenge the Stags for regular-season superiority.

But the international trip that gave Johnson and his players, both new and old, a chance to blend and bond, should pay dividends for the Stags this season. It could be enough for Fairfield to reach the one goal it hasn't gotten yet in its recent positive run: a trip to the NCAA's.

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