Sunday, June 9, 2013

Team Report: Fairfield Men Facing Much Inexperience

Here's another in the "Team Report" series, looking back and ahead at conference programs.

Up now ...


2012-13 RECORD: 9-9 (tied for 6th) in MAAC play, 19-16 overall.

2012-13 RECAP: The Stags were the seventh-seeded team for the conference tournament, and made it to the semifinals with wins over Saint Peter's and Rider, before falling to Manhattan, 60-42. Fairfield then got an invitation to the tournament, where it dropped a last-second 73-71 decision to Kent State.

WHAT WENT RIGHT: A nice year by senior guard Derek Needham (14.6 points per game and a team-high 110 assists). He finished his career as No. 3 on the Stags' all-time scoring list and No. 4 on its all-time assist list. He was a contributor from his first game as a freshmen, as well as one of the classiest individuals to ever play in the MAAC. The win total is good, but the likelihood is that expectations were higher than a tie for sixth in the regular-season standings. Still, a fourth-straight trip to a national post-season tournament is definitely a positive, and the Stags played well there, rallying from a a 13-point deficit in the second half to tie it with 16 seconds remaining before Kent State converted the winning basket with three seconds remaining. Amadou Sidibe, a developing "big" had a strong freshman season (5.7 points, 6.2 rebounds per game) and will only get better. And, head coach Sydney Johnson thinks highly enough of Sidebe's leadership abilities to have named him a captain for the coming season, an almost unheard of honor for a sophomore. Another freshman, 6-6 small forward Marcus Gilbert, also contributed (5.5, 3.2) and looked like he will be a nice building block for the future. Desmond Wade was solid at the point (110 assists against 67 turnovers). Team-wise there was a nice six-game winning streak early in the year (Rider, Milwaukee, Drexel, St. Joe's, Old Dominion and Canisius). And, later, there was a mid-season five-game winning streak against MAAC opponents. The Stags also did much of their best work on the defensive end, holding opponents to 59.2 ppg., 27th-best nationally.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Other than Needham, there wasn't a consistent offensive threat (the team's second-best scorer was forward Maurice Barrow, at 8.9 ppg.), and teams without at least two offensive threats rarely have a lot of success. The Stags did good work, though, turning games into physical affairs played at their preferred (slow) pace. But, as good as the defense was ... the offense ranked 309 out of 343 Division I teams nationally in terms of points per game. The couple of in-season winning streaks were countered by inconsistent stretches. The Stags started 2-6 in MAAC play before a 7-3 run down the stretch to get to the .500 level in conference play. Still, it wasn't good enough to avoid the post-season tournament's play-in round as Fairfield wound up as the event's No. 7 seed. Fairfield actually had a 7-1 stretch after the 2-6 start before losing its final two regular-season games. One of those two late losses was a 34-31 setback against Manhattan. Fairfield's 31 points in the game matched the program's all-time low for a single game, last set in the 1976-77 season. The Stags were also a little "short" inside with the only real contributor taller than 6-6. Keith Matthews, an effective reserve who reportedly wasn't pleased with his playing time, was given a release from his scholarship and is said to be looking to transfer to a school in his home state of Florida. The team's inconsistent play was probably caused, in some part, by its overall inexperience as there were only five non-freshmen on the roster.

WHAT'S AHEAD: The top three guards (Needham, Wade and Colin Nickerson) are gone, and that leaves a considerable backcourt void. But, help is coming. Sean Grennan, a 6-3 off-guard who sat out last season after transferring in from Seton Hall (he was limited to 18 games there in the 2011-12 season due to appendicitis), has three years of eligibility. The Stags also have numbers in the backcourt but, again, but will have inexperience there after having so much senior talent this past season. Sophomore-to-be Justin Jenkins is a candidate at both guard spots. But, incoming freshman K.J. Rose looks like the only true point guard in the program. Lincoln Davis, another newcomer, spent this past season at prep school. He's another strong candidate for playing time in the backcourt but appears to be more scorer than ball-handler. The future of the program's guard corps appears strong, but inexperienced for now. It means the front court will have to make strides, but there's talent there in the developing Sidibe, Barrow and Gilbert. Josip Mikulic, a 7-footer, flashed some potential this past season and might be ready to be a stronger role player. And, then, there's a big piece, literally, coming aboard in mid-season when Pittsburgh transfer Malcolm Gilbert, a 6-foot-10, 235-pound center, becomes eligible after the first semester. Gilbert, who played sparingly at Pitt as a freshman two years ago, was redshirting in 2012-13 when he, instead, opted for a mid-season transfer to play alongside his brother, Marcus. His offensive game is still developing, but he should be an immediate contributor on the defensive end.

PREDICTION FOR 2013-14: It's hard to envision Fairfield competing for the league's top spot this year, particularly considering its youth. Barrow will be the program's only senior. Everyone else on the roster will be either a sophomore or a freshman. Still, there's enough talent in place for the Stags to be competitive. A mid-pack finish is probable with considerably better coming in future years as the youngsters develop together.

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