Saturday, May 3, 2014

Team Report: Fairfield Men Could Rebuild Quickly

Here's another in the "Team Report" series, taking a look back at the recently concluded season and a crystal-ball look at what might be ahead.

Up now ...


2013-14 RECORD: 4-16 in MAAC play, 10th place; 7-25 overall.

WHAT WENT RIGHT: One has to look to some individual improvement for any real positive in such a year of struggle. That and, it seems, a necessary "attitude adjustment" that saw two players suspended for what was called a lack of basketball focus and commitment, according to head coach Sydney Johnson. Whether that turns into a positive for the future won't be fully known until the coming season. But, clearly Johnson didn't like what he was seeing from some players and acted to separate them from his program. Individually, departing senior forward Maurice Barrow (14.0 points, 5.0 rebounds) continued his career-long solid play and was named the conference's Sixth Man of the Year winner. Sophomore forward Marcus Gilbert also continued to improve (13.9, 5.1), and was among the better young players in the league. And, freshman point guard K.J. Rose provided more than a glimmer of hope for the future (8.0, 3.4, 3.7 assists). Malcolm Gilbert, a 6-11 sophomore transfer center (from Pitt) had a huge 8-block/11-rebound game vs. Sacred Heart early in the season and, then, looked to have considerable rust in his game thereafter. The eye test, though, indicated that the Stags who were on the court continued to play hard in a snake-bitten season, one that saw the team win its first game and, then, lose eight straight. It had three losing streaks of at least five games, all of which could demoralize some squads. Amid all of that, though, was a mid-season victory over NCAA Tournament-bound Manhattan. And, the Stags finished out regular season relatively strong, winning two of their last four games before a heart-breaking 65-62 loss to Saint Peter's in the play-in round of the MAAC Tournament.

WHAT WENT WRONG:  Start with the "commitment" issues that saw Johnson dismiss Seton Hall transfer Sean Grennan and freshman Lincoln Davis from the team at midseason. Subsequently Davis has transferred out as has sophomore guard Justin Jenkins, who started 14 games this past season. And, Fairfield had severe backcourt issues even before all of that with just one scholarship guard (Jenkins) who had played for the Stags prior to the season. Grennan, a big-time high school scorer who had health issues at Seton Hall, was supposed to provide a big boost but provided very little. Overall, Fairfield had the 31st youngest team nationally, but two other MAAC teams had more success (Siena and Monmouth) with even less overall experience. Only 27 of 343 Division I teams nationally committed more turnovers, indicative of the team's backcourt woes. Only nine teams nationally had a worse shooting percentage than Fairfield's 39.8 percent from the floor. Sophomore forward Amadou Sidibe, expected to be a rock in the middle after a strong frosh season, battled knee tendinitis all season and wasn't anywhere near his best. Malcolm Gilbert's play never matched his potential. As bad as things were, Fairfield wasn't that far away from being better. Six of its MAAC losses came by four points or less. And, snake-bit? Saint Peter's seemingly had some voodoo hex over the Stags. Fairfield lost both regular-season games to the Peacocks by a single point, and also lost to Saint Peter's by three in overtime in the MAAC tournament. And, in all three games Peacocks' guard Desi Washington drained a game-winning three-point shot in the closing seconds, all three from virtually the same spot on the court. It all added up to the worst winning percentage since program moved to the Division I level in the 1964-65 season.

WHAT'S AHEAD: Things couldn't get any worse, and there is reason to believe there's a turnaround coming in the not-so-distant future. Johnson is a no-nonsense coach, one who was willing to weed out the attitude problems of this past season. So, expect that situation to be solved. He'll have a core group of Marcus Gilbert, Rose, Sidibe and Malcolm Gilbert to work with. If Malcolm Gilbert can shake off the rust, he's an athletic 6-11 shot-blocker that could really help.Both  Doug Chappell, a 6-2 rising junior (4.2, 1.6) and Coleman Johnson, a 6-6 rising junior (5.6, 4.5) look like they can help out next season. It's rare that freshmen make significant impacts, but there does appear to be a pretty strong group coming in, led by 6-foot-8 forward Kevin Degnan and 5-10 off-guard Damarcus Threatt, who averaged 20.6 ppg. at the junior college level last season. Two other guards, 6-0 Tyler Nelson and 5-10 Jerome Segura, will also come in as freshmen while 6-9 forward Ami Lakoja is yet another incoming first-year player. The Stags will still be young, likely without a senior in the starting lineup, but they should be better this coming season and a lot better beyond that.

REASONABLE EXPECTATION: The Stags won't be the worst team in the MAAC in 2014-15, but that's not saying much for a proud program that had three-straight 20-victory seasons not long ago (2009-10 through 2011-12). Fairfield certainly won't approach 20 victories this season, but it will likely get into the double-digits for overall wins and could contend to finish in the seventh/eighth-place range.

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