Unless harsher words than ‘disappointing’ and ‘frustrating’ are being used, no other term could be used to describe the first 21 games of the season for Fairfield men’s basketball.
They sit at 4-17 overall, with just one win in their 10 conference games thus far. Their three nonconference wins all came against teams currently sporting losing records nearly two-thirds of the way through the season.
After being picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the MAAC this season (sixth out of 10 teams), saying that the Stags have stumbled out of the gate would be an outrageous understatement.
The team sits in last or next-to-last in the MAAC in multiple offensive categories: scoring, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, turnover margin and assist/turnover ratio. Their scoring isn’t just below average for the conference – it’s among the worst in the country, as their 61.2 points per contest is tied with University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff for 343rd out of 351 Division I teams in the country.
However, a low-scoring offense does not necessarily guarantee losses. Fairfield and Head Coach Sydney Johnson have employed a type of Princeton-style offensive system in the past, which focuses on using a lot of time per possession to set up plays, and have had success using that system.
But clearly the system is broken this season. Combine a slow offense that isn’t very effective due to poor shooting (39 percent from the floor — good for 340th in the country) with a slightly turnover-prone team that doesn’t rack up many assists or steals, and there’s good cause as to why this team has lost over 80 percent of its games this season.
This is not an indictment of any one player or person with the team — it is a team-wide failure. Changing one variable would not dramatically improve or add to this team, as there are a number of issues that need to be addressed in order for this team to get back on track.
It Could Be Worse
While their win-loss record does a pretty good job of telling the story of the season to this point, it does not paint the complete picture. A 4-17 record implies that a team is not good enough to compete in its own conference, and every night is heading for a guaranteed loss, most likely a blowout.
This is simply not true for this team.
In nine of their 17 losses, including six of their nine conference losses, the margin of defeat has been less than 10 points. And in five of their last six losses, the Stags have had a lead or were tied in the second half of those games.
Defensively, Fairfield is one of the better teams in the conference. The Stags surrender just 68.6 points per game, good for second in the MAAC behind St. Peter’s, and they allow their opponents to shoot just over 41 percent, also second in the conference. They rank in the top five in the MAAC in defensive rebounding, blocks, rebounding margin and three-point field goal defense.
And there have been a few bright spots on the offensive end as well. Sophomore Marcus Gilbert and Mo Barrow ‘14 have proven to be consistent scoring threats, both averaging more than 12 points per contest. Freshman K.J. Rose has handled the point guard duties well considering his lack of experience, as he is in the top 10 in the MAAC in assists.
It is not that the team has no fight in it or has no will to win, because they have proven they do, especially in their more recent games. They scratch and claw, and play some of the best defense in the league, and always find themselves in a close game coming down the stretch. But it’s those few missed baskets, ill-timed turnovers, sloppy passes or just bad bounces that separate the wins from the losses, and the good teams from the bad ones.
All season long, the Stags have looked like they belong in that second category. But by eliminating just a few mistakes or bad shots, they could have an opportunity to pull off some upsets in the final third of the season.
So You’re Saying There’s a Chance
If there is anything at all that can give Stags fans hope for this season, maybe it’s this: The last time Fairfield finished the regular season with a last-place finish in conference play was 1997, finishing conference play with a 2-12 record, 11-18 overall. That same team went on a magical run to win the MAAC Tournament championship in that season, and played in the NCAA Tournament as a 16 seed against North Carolina.
Granted, that was a different time and very different circumstances (the Stags were picked to finish first in the conference that season, but a slew of injuries prevented them from getting healthy until March), but at least it has been done before.
Looking towards the end of the season, three of Fairfield’s final four games of the regular season come against teams with losing records so far in MAAC play, giving the Stags the opportunity to possibly pick up some wins and some confidence heading into Springfield.
But it is going to take more than just confidence for the Stags to walk away from Springfield with some hardware.