Here's another in the series looking back and ahead at conference programs.
Up now ...
2011-12 RECORD: 15-3 in MAAC play, 24-9 overall.
2011-12 RECAP: To sum up: better than expected. With a 5-11 post-player and an offense that relied heavily on three-point shooting, the Stags posted the second-highest overall victory total in program history and put up 15 conference victories losing only twice to perennial title winner Marist and once to solid Loyola. After a 7-4 non-conference start Fairfield posted an 11-1 record, then lost consecutive games to Marist and Loyola and, then, rang up six more victories before falling to Marist in the championship game of the conference tournament. The Stags finished second in the regular season, earning an automatic bid to the WNIT (the program's second national post-season tournament ... it also went to the WBI in 2010... in the past three years) where it lost its first-round game to Drexel. Senior post player Taryn Johnson had a standout year, averaging 12.4 points and 7.7 rebounds and was this scribe's choice for the top player in the MAAC. Yet, the team was about more than just Johnson, as it proved in a 63-48 MAAC tournament semifinal-round victory over Siena. In that game the Saints held a 39-38 lead with a little over 17 minutes to play when Johnson picked up her fourth foul. Yet, with the team's top player on the bench for the next 15 minutes, Fairfield went to an outside-oriented/four-guard style and pulled away to knock off the Saints. The effort, though, seemed to drain the Stags, who were never in the championship game, losing 61-35 to Marist after having only lost to the Red Foxes by four- and 12-point margins in the two regular-season games. The 24-victory season marked the third time in five years under coach Joe Frager that the Stags have hit the 20-victory plateau. Prior to that Fairfield had six straight sub-.500 seasons.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: Frager's philosophy is team play (no player averaged more than 12.4 points), tough defense and a deliberate offense that almost entirely eschews any sort of fast break. Mostly, Fairfield secures a defensive rebound and, then, walks the ball up court. It's part of the reason why it ranked fifth nationally in fewest points allowed (52.0), but it also ranked 45th in defensive field-goal percentage (opponents shot 36.2 percent). The style also enabled Fairfield to rank 18th in fewest turnovers per game (13.9). The team's 186 made three-pointers were the most in school history. Johnson, while not a flashy player or prolific scorer, made big plays when the team needed them. Another senior, point guard Desiree Pina (11.0 points, 3.4 assists) was an improved offensive player and indispensable ball-handler who played the full 40 minutes in nine games. She became the 12th player in MAAC history to put up career totals of more than 1,000 points, 400 rebounds, 300 assists, 100 steals and 100 three-pointers. Sophomore guard Alexys Vasquez was a revelation from long-range, making 42.7 percent of her three-point attempts and led the country in 3-point percentage for a good portion of the season. She would have ranked second overall had she met the minimum (2.0 per game) made treys required to be ranked by the NCAA. Junior guard Katelyn Linney had a team-high 65 three-pointers and joined Vasquez to form one of the conference's top long-range tandems. Junior forward Brittany MacFarlane basically played starters's minutes coming off the bench (averaging 5.2 points and 5.3 rebounds) and was the MAAC's 6th Player of the Year.
WHAT WENT WRONG: Had to find too much fault in a season that resulted in the second-highest victory total in program history. Under Frager the Stags have pretty much become one of the MAAC's best teams, but (like everyone else) they just haven't been able to match Marist. Fairfield is 62-26 against MAAC teams other than Marist during Frager's five seasons, but 2-9 against the Red Foxes. Fairfield's one glaring weakness was on the boards, where it had a 2.4 rebound-per-game deficiency. Yet, it more than made up for that by doing a lot of other things well. The team also lacked a solid bench, pretty much going just six or seven deep. And, the offense struggled late. Fairfield failed to get to 50 points in four of its last six games, and scored just 35 (vs. Marist) and 41 (vs. Drexel) in its last two contests.
WHAT'S AHEAD: Two very good players, Johnson and Pina, graduate and there are no sure-thing replacements. Three touted recruits are coming in, but they are all perimeter players. Still, with four solid players returning, Fairfield should once again be very good in the coming season. And, Cristelle Akon-Akech (2.4, 1.7), the niece of NBA standout Luol Deng and former Fairfield men's star Ajou Deng, improved as the season went on and is a likely starter next season. To approach another 20-victory season, though, the team will need to find a capable replacement for Pina. Freshman Felicia DaCruz is certainly a candidate, but ... she averaged 26 minutes per game in the first three games of this past season and, then, only played more than nine minutes in any other game just once afterwards. The other candidate will be 5-8 Lizzie Ball, an incoming recruit. It will be interesting to see which of those two earn the point-guard spot for next season. There's no "replacement" for Johnson, although MacFarlane will almost assuredly move into the starting lineup and 6-2 sophomore Katie Ciznski (5.6, 2.7) will be expected to be more of an inside presence. Potentially 6-1 sophomore Brittany Obi-Tabot could also help inside next year. She is an athletic, lanky inside player who only got into 17 games this season due to a mid-season injury. Still, the team's style and Frager's notoriously thick offensive playbook makes Fairfield a tough opponent every night.
PREDICTION FOR 2012-13: Hard to envision anyone other than Marist dominating the league again, but Fairfield is certainly among the next group that will contend for second through fifth place in the coming season.