It was an up and down year for the Fairfield Stags as they finished the season in fourth place at 17-13 and 12-6 in the MAAC. Perhaps the biggest concern is how the Stags finished, with two road losses at Iona and Rider. An even bigger concern is that second-team All-MAAC guard Derek Needham will miss the MAAC tournament with a broken bone in his foot. Do the Stags have enough in the tank to make a run to the NCAA tournament?
The Favorite: Iona
Iona has clearly cemented themselves as the favorite. They ran through the MAAC finishing the season at 24-6 and 15-3 in MAAC play and are led by three All-MAAC players. First-team member Scott Machado leads the nation in assists at 10.1 per game. Michael Glover, another member of the All-MAAC first team leads the MAAC in field goal percentage while averaging the second highest point total in the MAAC at 18.1 p.p.g (points-per-game). This is a hungry Gaels team. Last year they were the final victims of St. Peters “Cinderella Run”, and it is Michael Glover and Scott Machado’s last chance to get to the big dance. This is a team that leads the nation in scoring (83.4 p.p.g.) and assists (19.5 a.p.g.), and they are the second best shooting team in America at 50.2 percent for the field! However, their defense is average at best. They are sixth in the MAAC, giving up 72.5 p.p.g., and have given up 80-plus points nine times. They have wins against Nevada, Maryland, St. Joseph’s and Denver, giving them a slight chance at an at large bid if they slip up in the tournament. Their three MAAC losses came to Loyola, Siena and Manhattan, and they have an RPI of 44. The key to beating the Gaels is slowing them down and defending the perimeter, but that is certainly no easy task.
I believe that with Derek Needham, Fairfield is the most dangerous team of the bunch. However, Needham is out, so everyone has to step up on the offensive end if they want a chance to win because the talent is there. First-team All-MAAC player Rakim Sanders is the hardest match up in the MAAC, 7-footer Ryan Olander has the ability to take over the game, and when Sean Crawford is on he is a top-three shooter in the MAAC. However, the Stags have not been consistent offensively all season and are coming into the dance cold with two tough road loses to Iona and Rider. The Stags were running on all cylinders just a few weeks ago, but with the status of Needham being up in the air, their chances become less. It is on the role players to step up. Sean Crawford, Desmond Wade, Jamel Fields and Colin Nickerson have to play with a chip on their shoulder and elevate their offensive game. What I do love is Fairfield’s will to win. Rakim Sanders and Sean Crawford are two of the toughest players this league has to offer, and these seniors are not easily shaken.
When this team is hot, they have proven just how good they can be with a 17 point smacking of Loyola on the road and with a fairly easy home victory against Manhattan. However, the ultimate answer to how the Stags will fair in the tournament is how quickly they can gel without captain Derek Needham. This is where seniors Ryan Olander, Sean Crawford and Rakim Sanders have the opportunity to make a statement.
Loyola is a mystery. They were the only team to really whip Iona, but they also lost to Marist and Niagara. It is hard to pick a team with those kinds of losses, but it is hard to pick against a team that is 4-2 against the league’s top three. The Greyhounds are the best rebounding team in the MAAC, and junior big man Erik Etherly is the Hounds’ first team All-MAAC player. The potential semi-final match up with Manhattan can be one of the best tournament games the MAAC has ever seen.
Manhattan went from dead last in the MAAC, to finishing in third place this season. The Jaspers have the conference’s leading scorer in George Beamon, who finished the season averaging 18.4 p.p.g and who is in the midst of a remarkable streak, scoring in double figures in 46 consecutive games. They also will be playing with a chip on their shoulder, after losing to Loyola 61-60, and 62-60. They are the second best defensive team in the MAAC, and if they can pick up their scoring, they have as good a chance as anyone to win the MAAC.
It is official: Rider is now a contender. The Broncs are coming into the MAAC tournament with home victories over Loyola, and a Needham-less Fairfield squad, whom they will also see in the quarterfinals. They are an experienced team, with seniors Jeff Jones, Brandon Penn, and Novar Gadson leading the charge. The bad news is that starting guard Anthony Miles, who also averages over 10 points-per-game, is out for the season with a hand injury. His absence could be the reason why the Broncs may be the least dangerous out of the four contenders.
How It Will Shape Out
(7) Niagara 77
(10) Canisius 72
(8) Marist 64
(9) St. Peters 61
(4) Fairfield 68
(5) Rider 55
Sean Crawford rises to the occasion, and Fairfield’s defense gets it done in a hard fought opening round victory.
(1) Iona 88
(8) Marist 82
(2) Loyola 72
(7) Niagara 68
(3) Manhattan 73
(6) Siena 55
(1) Iona 67
The Stags come into the game hungry after suffering two close loses to the Gaels. Rakim Sanders and Ryan Olander have big games and the defense of the Stags is too much for the Gaels, who go cold on the wrong night.
(3) Manhattan 63
(2) Loyola 61
(4) Fairfield 67
(3) Manhattan 61
The Stags put it all together for one more night. A team that has been doubted all year clicks at the right time. Desmond Wade has a career night, and Colin Nickerson’s defensive pressure wears down the Jaspers. Rakim Sanders makes his mark as one of the greatest players to ever wear a Stag uniform.
The reason I like the Stags is because of the adversity they have been through. New coach, new system, new players, injuries – the Stags have been through it all. They are an extremely dangerous four seed, and they are the type of group that has something to prove and nothing to lose. The late season losses to Iona and Rider are only fuel for the fire. Last season, St. Peters won the MAAC tournament as a four seed – the Peacocks of last year’s final game of the regular season? A 3-point loss to Rider. Let the best weekend of the year begin!