Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Men's Quarterfinal Round Preview: Fairfield vs. Rider

Here's another in the series previewing men's teams and games in the upcoming MAAC tournament.

FAIRFIELD (No. 4 Seed) vs. RIDER (No. 5)
Saturday, 2:30 p.m.

WHAT FAIRFIELD HAS: A tough-to-defend, so-called "Princeton" offensive style that the team seemed to get more comfortable with as the season progressed. Rakim Sanders (50.3 percent) and Maurice Barrow (51.7) both shot over 50 percent from the field. The team played defense well enough to rank first in fewest points allowed among conference teams (61.2) and third in field-goal-against percentage (41.0). Sanders is one of the top players in the conference, finishing fourth in scoring and third in rebounding. Overall the team had the conference's second-best assist-to-turnover ratio.

WHAT RIDER HAS: Certainly momentum. The Broncs defeated No. 2 seeded Loyola and No. 4 Fairfield, its quarterfinal-round foe, in back-to-back games this past weekend. Rider has improved as much as any team as the season progressed, suffering through a 1-10 start to finish 12-8 overall after that including a 10-5 mark in MAAC play over its final 15 contests. Rider has done it with more balance than any team, with five players averaging double figures (none more than Jeff Jones' 13.2 ppg. average) with three more bench players averaging between 7.7 and 3.9 ppg. It has helped that 6-7 forward Novar Gadson is as healthy as he has been this year, coming off off-season knee surgery, and has been the team's leading scorer in four of its last six games. Rider has been making better offensive decisions as the year progressed, shooting 45.1 percent from the field, second-best in the conference.

WHAT FAIRFIELD DOESN'T HAVE: Derek Needham, the junior guard who was averaging 11.8 points was leading the team in steals and was its best long-range shooting threat. Needham suffered a broken bone in a foot this past weekend and is done for the season. And, that's a a huge loss. Take away the player considered either the best, or second-best player from any team and it's a major setback. The Stags have an adequate replacement for handling the ball in point guard Desmond Wade, but can't replace Needham's court sense and scoring ability. The Stags also lack momentum, having dropped its last two games, albeit to first-place Iona and to Rider.

WHAT RIDER DOESN'T HAVE: A consistent go-to offensive point-scorer, although Gadson seems to be embracing that role of late. And, is a negative to have five almost equally capable scorers on the floor together? The Broncs lost a first-rate point guard through graduation (Justin Robinson) after last season, but Justin Thompson has made dramatic strides and averages 4.8 assists, second-best in the conference. Right now there don't appear to be a lot of weaknesses.

HOW FAIRFIELD CAN WIN: Despite Needham's absence there remains a lot of talent here. Sanders is  one of the top three or four players in the conference. Wade is a good-enough point guard. Maurice Barrow, an undersized forward, provides some inside toughness and 7-footer Ryan Olander causes match-up problems. Needham's replacements ... Colin Nickerson, Jamel Fields and Sean Crawford ... are capable of splitting time and being productive. If those three can be solid, Fairfield has as good a chance as anyone to make a deep run in the tournament.

HOW RIDER CAN WIN: Just by playing the way it has been playing of late. If nothing, the team is resilient. A 1-10 start could easily have caused players to coast in after that, but that wasn't the case here as things came together in a big way. Players got healthy and improved. The Broncs have enough size, play enough defense and have enough offensive fire power to be the dark horse pick here to do well in this event.

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