Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Men's Preview: Fairfield Could Have Another Late Run

Here's another in the series previewing conference teams.

Up now...


2011-12 RECORD: 12-6 in MAAC play, 22-15 overall. Lost to Loyola, 48-44, in the MAAC championship game. Advanced to the championship game of the CollegeInsiders.com Tournament, losing to Mercer, 64-59.

KEY RETURNEES: 5-11 senior guard Derek Needham (11.8 points, 2.7 rebounds per game last season), 6-5 junior forward Keith Matthews (3.7, 1.9), 6-5 junior forward Maurice Barrow (9.3, 6.0), 6-3 senior guard Colin Nickerson (4.7, 2.2), 5-8 senior guard Desmond Wade (6.3, 2.9 assists).

KEY LOSSES: 6-5 forward Rakim Sanders (16.5, 8.2), 7-0 center Ryan Olander (8.6, 4..4).

KEY NEWCOMERS: 6-6 freshman forward Marcus Gilbert, 7-0 freshman center Josip Mikulic, 6-8 freshman forward Amadou Sidibe.

NOTES: Last season was the program's third straight with 20+ victories overall. This year, Fairfield is off to a 5-5 start overall ... Sanders was a major loss. The one-year transfer from Boston College was the first player in program history to record at least 600 points and 300 rebounds in a season ... And, the loss of 7-footer Olander left the program without a single returning player taller than 6-5 ... That, though, has been addressed by a strong freshman class of big men, including Josip Mikulic, a 7-footer from Croatia (5.7 points, 3.1 rebounds so far), 6-6 forward Marcus Gilbert (5.8, 2.6) and 6-8 rebounding specialist Amadou Sidibe (5.5, 5.3), whose rebound average leads the Stags, despite getting just 18.9 minutes per contest ... The youthful front-courters have good mentors in poised upperclassmen, 6-5 juniors Maurice Barrow (7.8, 3.4 so far) and Keith Matthews (7.8, 4.0) ... The perimeter has a trio that ranks among the better outside groups in the MAAC, led by 5-11 senior Derek Needham (14.0, 3.1), who is once again the primary point producer. He's joined by do-everything 6-3 senior Colin Nickerson (6.8, 3.2) and 5-8 senior point guard Desmond Wade (6.6, 3.0, 4.6 assists) ... It means that as long as the freshmen continue to contribute, the Stags go legitimately eight deep ... Second-year head coach Sydney Johnson's "Princeton" style offense is further ingrained, and a dedication to defense (Fairfield was 26th nationally in steals last year and 34th in scoring-average against) remains strong.

FAIRFIELD'S STRENGTHS: An outstanding perimeter trio in Needham, Nickerson and Wade, good veteran presence up front in Matthews and Barrow and good height on the front line, albeit provided by freshmen. That three first-year players are contributing right away should ensure they'll mature as the season goes on.

FAIRFIELD'S WEAKNESSES: A reliance on three freshmen to do much of the rebounding. Also, a lack of a second offensive contributor right now. Only Needham averages in double figures. Next is Matthews and Barrow at 7.8 ppg.

REASONABLE EXPECTATIONS: A season not that dissimilar from a year ago when the team started 8-9 before things kicked in and it went 14-6 down the stretch. The freshmen will be year-long works in progress, but will improve as the season progresses and so too will Fairfield. The likelihood is that by mid-to-late January things will be even better than they were now and the Stags will be a dangerous opponent over the last five or six weeks of the regular season and into the league's post-season tournament. It certainly has the potential to challenge for the regular-season title, but more likely will finish somewhere in the third, fourth or fifth range.

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