Here's another in the series looking back and ahead at conference programs.
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2011-12 RECORD: 12-6 in MAAC play, 22-15 overall.
2011-12 RECAP: Much was expected of Fairfield, but it took the Stags time to deliver. That, though, was understandable considering all the transition. Former coach Ed Cooley moved on to Providence after the 2010-11 season, meaning Fairfield not only had to adjust to a new coach (Sydney Johnson), but a new playing style (a Princeton-type offense), some new players (transfers Rakim Sanders and Desmond Wade became eligible for the recently concluded season) and a roster of returnees all brought in to play Cooley's style. It meant an 8-9 overall start to the season. And, then, things started falling into place. After that the Stags went 14-6, advancing to the conference tournament's championship game and, then, getting to the CollegeInsider.com tournament's semifinal round before its season ended. The late success came without No. 2 scorer junior guard Derek Needham, who broke a bone in his left foot and missed the last regular-season game and all of post-season play. Sanders, a transfer from Boston College, made a nice adjustment to the MAAC, becoming the Stags' go-to player on offense.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: Not much early, but plenty after the first 17 games. Sanders was the team's requisite star, finishing fifth in the league in scoring (16.6), third in rebounds (8.2) and seventh in steals (1.4). Needham finished third in the MAAC in three-pointers per game (2.5). Sophomore forward Maurice Barrow (9.3, 6.0), showed signs of significant progress, particularly on the offensive end in the CIT when he averaged 11.8 points per game in the four games of that event. Junior guard Colin Nickerson also stepped up in Needham's late-season absence, connecting on 60.5 percent of his shots in the three MAAC tournament games and the first three games of the CIT. The Stags also made a nice statement, knocking off top-seed Iona in the MAAC tournament's semifinal round, 85-75. The 14-6 run after the slow start showed that Johnson's style of play became effective (albeit, after some adjustment). The Stags did advance to the MAAC tournament's championship game, but faltered there while scoring just 44 points (losing to Loyola, 48-44). It's not a stretch to think Fairfield would have had a better chance in that game if Needham had been able to play. Statistically Fairfield was the top MAAC team for points allowed (61.1 per game), and 34th-best nationally. It was also 32nd nationally in assists-per-game (14.9), indicating just how well the Stags shared the ball in light of ranking eighth in total points scored per outing. It all added up to the program's third consecutive 20-victory season and another national post-season tournament marked the third straight of those, the first time the program has ever gone to three consecutive post-season events (CIT in 2010, NIT in 2011 and CIT this season). The program has come a long way since it was mired in mediocrity under former coach Tim O'Toole, and appears to be poised to continue having solid seasons.
WHAT WENT WRONG: The slow (8-9) start, very much attributable to a considerable amount of transition. And, then, the Stags' MAAC tournament chances were severely compromised by the loss of Nedham, although they did well just to get to and be competitive in the event's championship game. Even when Needham was around, though, his numbers fell off for the second consecutive season. After a spectacular (16.4 ppg.) freshman season, he fell off to 14.1 as a sophomore and 11.8 this past season. This season's diminished numbers can be somewhat excused to a new offense and a new go-to performer (Sanders), both limiting the need for more production from Needham. Still, most players build off a freshman year and Needham's numbers have been going in the other direction. And, Fairfield did have some deficiencies that were on display in the MAAC tournament's championship game. Its 7-footer, senior Ryan Olander, was more a perimeter than a paint player. Otherwise, its next biggest contributor was 6-5. The Stags just weren't big enough or physical enough inside to contend with Loyola. And, then, since the end of last season, two members of the playing group, and a promising reserve and, potentially, another player in the program have either left or appear to be leaving the program early. Sophomore guard Jamal Fields (to Saint Peter's), junior guard Sean Crawford and freshman forward Adam Jones have all opted to leave Fairfield. And, star-crossed guard Keegan Hyland, who attended Fairfield this past season, appears to be on the verge of transferring to a Division II school, which would be his fourth college stop.
WHAT'S AHEAD: Not necessarily a fall back to the O'Toole days, but also a little bit of a slip from the recent three-year run of 20-victory seasons and national post-season berths. With graduations and the recent defections only five players who saw action this past season will be back, an not one of them is taller than 6-5. The only other returnee is 7-footer Vince Van Ness, who red-shirted this past season. Still, Fairfield will be more than competitive with one of the MAAC's better perimeter groups in Needham, junior 6-3 guard Nickerson and junior 5-8 point guard Desmond Wade. Barrow made considerable strides as a soph coming off a solid freshman year and another 6-5 sophomore Keith Matthews flashed signs he is ready to move from role player to solid contributor, at the very least. But, that's it for experience. The team welcomes seven new players ... six incoming freshmen and red-shirt Van Ness. The incoming class does bring considerable height, particularly with 6-10 center Josip Mikulic. Hard, though, to expect freshmen big men to be major factors right away. Fairfield will go as far as its perimeter players can carry the team next year.
PREDICTION FOR 2012-13: Most likely not in the top two, and there are a few other teams with more returning talent, as well. But, the Stags' style is difficult to defend. If the young big men contribute anything of any value, there's a chance Fairfield could finish as high as third ... or, as low as sixth or seventh.