Aisha Faulkner/The Mirror


Analyzing the Stags

It has been a bit of a roller coaster for the 2011-2012 version of the Fairfield Stags. Currently, the Stags sit at 4th place in the MAAC with an 8-4 conference record and a 13-10 overall mark.  The Stags have seven games remaining, and more importantly, six conference games are on slate.

Ability to Close Out Games

When I look at this team, I see a lot of experience and a lot of talent. However, in their losses I do not see a whole lot of chemistry and leadership down the stretch.  In the Stag’s 53-51 loss at Manhattan in early January, Fairfield led by seven points with 7:15 left in the game. Over the final seven minutes, the Stags mustered only three points, and hit one field goal while the Jaspers closed the game out on a 12-3 run. The worst part about this game was the fact that it seemed like a switch turned off for the Stags. They were playing not to lose rather than staying aggressive for the full 40 minutes.  Just five days later, the Stags took on Loyola, and the result was all too familiar. Fairfield jumped all over the Greyhounds and earned a commanding 15 point lead with just under 15 minutes to play thanks to some great team basketball. However, once again in crunch time, the Stags buckled and saw a 15 point lead evaporate in a heartbreaking 66-63 loss for the Stags. Over the final five minutes, Fairfield only managed to score 5 points and hit one field goal. No one wanted to take the big shot for the Stags. The most exruciating part about these losses is that if Fairfield had hung on, they would be a 1/2 game out of first place in the MAAC. Instead, they trail Manhattan (10-3) by a game and a half, and Loyola, (11-2), by two and a half games.

The good news for Fairfield is that they get a second crack against Manhattan at home on Thursday and another chance at Loyola on Sunday. One thing that fans have to remember is that it takes TIME to gel and mesh as a team. Anytime you have a highly touted coach and two big-time transfers being integrated to your lineup, it can be challenging to figure out who your leader is and you have to learn how to win as a team.  This comes with time and close game experience. The wins against Rider and Niagara demonstrates that this team is growing and trusting each other more and more. They withstood both teams’ runs, hit a few big shots, and came out with two important MAAC wins.

Looking at the Losses by the Numbers

In the Stags’ four MAAC losses, pre-season 1st team All-MAAC guard Derek Needham is only averaging 6.25 points per game and 4.5 assists. Prior to this season, Needham was not held under 7 points ONCE in his career in MAAC play! Now, if you look at Needham in the Stags’ eight conference wins, he is putting up 16.9 points per game to go with 4.25 assists per contest. Wow. It is fair to say that as Needham goes, so do the Stags.

In the Stags four MAAC losses, they shot a combined 35.4 percent from the field while in their 8 wins; the Stags have shot 50.4 percent from the floor.  As simple as it may sound, when the Stags hit their open shots and knock down threes,  (a whopping 55 percent, 33-60 in their past 3 games), they are capable of beating anybody in the MAAC. The Stags have made a habit of solid defensive effort, as once again they lead the MAAC in scoring defense only giving up 62.3 points per game. Simply put, it has been the inconsistent offensive play that has plagued Fairfield over the course of this season.


What to Expect

This is a very good and very dangerous Fairfield team. As we learned from  St. Peters’ magical MAAC Tournament run last year, and the New York Giants this year, it’s all about getting hot at the right time. Believe it or not, these losses to Iona, Siena, Manhattan and Loyola are probably the best thing for the Stags. It puts a chip on the players’ shoulders and gives them that extra motivation to beat these teams the second time around. They are no longer the hunted during this final stretch of the season; they are the hunters and this is a role that works in favor of the Stags.

Fairfield has seven games left, and if they win in the remaining games it will be their third consecutive 20-win season. However, winning out will not be an easy feat. Five of the final seven games will be played on the road, and three of the seven contests will come against the top three MAAC teams whom the Stags are 0-3 against. Fairfield has a great opportunity to prove what they are capable of and get hot at the right time. Derek Needham is starting to play the best basketball of his career while Desmond Wade, Needham and Rakim Sanders are really starting to look in sync offensively.

Although it will certainly be a challenging task, finishing the season in second or third place is not out of the question for the Stags.  If Fairfield can sweep the Manhattan/ Loyola series this weekend, there is a chance that we may be looking at a three-way tie for second by Sunday night. Loyola and Manhattan (who are in 2nd and 3rd place respectively) still have to play each other and Loyola has the pleasure of hosting Iona as well as Fairfield this weekend. Although Iona seems like the clear favorite to take the regular season title, the MAAC is turning into a very intriguing four-team race.

After this weekend, Fairfield hosts St. Peters and then travels to Milwaukee for their Bracketbuster game against Horizon league foe UW-Milwaukee. The Stags end the season with a brutal stretch of road games at Marist, Iona and Rider.

Things are really starting to heat up in the MAAC, but so are the Stags.  Winners of five of their last six, the Stags have put themselves in a position to potentially still win the MAAC, but it will take a lot of work.  As we learned last year, the most important three games of the year occur at the MAAC tournament in Springfield, MA. How the Stags finish their last seven games will be a very good indicator of things to come in early March. It is time to either rise to the occasion, or fall into the middle pack of the MAAC. This stretch will test the will power and leadership of the Stags. Let the games begin.

Three Keys to the End of the Season

Which Derek Needham will we see?

–Can Derek continue the stellar play he had the past weekend where he averaged over 25 points per game? Or will he fall back down to earth? Don’t expect Derek to put up 32 every night, but expect an increase in scoring and assists if the Stags want to make a run.

Will Ryan Olander get his offense back?

–Over the past four games, Ryan has only averaged 3.5 points per game.  Although he is one of the best defenders in the MAAC, he has to regain his confidence on the offensive side of the ball. He has such a nice touch and if he gets it going it will add another offensive weapon to the Stags arsenal.

Can the Stags continue to develop chemistry?

–Right now it is fair to say the Stags have been playing their best basketball of the year, but the consistency needs to continue. Desmond Wade has really stepped up and is starting to establish himself as an offensive threat in the MAAC. The team looks like they are having fun out there, and wins have been the result.  We will see how much this team has grown this weekend.

Colin Nickerson and Sean Crawford

–Nickerson and Crawford are two of my favorite players to watch. If Nickerson can continue to play well defensively and get the occasional bucket, he adds a whole other element to the Stags. The same goes for Crawford. If he can continue to hit the clutch three when he is called upon, he can be the sniper that the Stags need to get to the next level.

Prediction for the Rest of the Season

18-12 (13-5 MAAC) which will be good for 3rd place.

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