In case no one has noticed – and if the turnout at last week’s game against Providence is any indication – the Stags men’s basketball team can officially be labeled as a contender, and not a pretender.

After the Stags hung with No. 14 Iowa for 37 minutes, and then handily beat Tulane, it became apparent that this team might surprise a lot of people in the conference season, which begins Friday when the Stags host Loyola.

The win against Tulane was not just a win, it was a sigh of relief. The team is now 1-4 after playing against favored non-conference opponents. But this win was well deserved and I couldn’t be happier to see the team finally win.

Four Stags scored in double figures against the Tulane Green Wave, which was topped off by senior Terrance Todd’s 18-point performance. Many players, such as Jonathan Han ’09, Danny Oglesby ’06 and Michael Van Schaick ’07, have continued to play key roles for this team.

The win came against a Tulane team that has not played a true home game all season. Its home games are played in nearby College Station, Texas, home of Texas A’M. Although it is unfortunate that the Green Wave team has not been able to play a true home game this year because of Hurricane Katrina, I still found myself rooting for the Stags.

The first game of the Classic featured Fairfield against host University of Iowa.

The final score was 75-59 Iowa. So what is the big deal? Fairfield lost by 16. The big deal is that Fairfield was down five points with 3:22 left in the game and was looking to upset and shock Iowa in its own tournament.

The Hawkeyes turned it around to score 11 points in those final minutes to finally put Fairfield away. But considering that the Hawkeyes have won their tournament 22 times in 23 years, a Fairfield win would have been a near impossibility. Even though Stags Head Coach Tim O’Toole insists that there is no such thing as a moral victory, this one must come pretty close.

Michael Bell ’06, a Marshalltown, Iowa native, had several hundred supporters at both games.

If Fairfield came that close to beating Iowa and only lost by three to Providence, than MAAC teams should be put on notice that the Stags may be better than their sixth place standing in the pre-season conference coaches’ poll might indicate.

Iowa was listed as a 25-point favorite over Fairfield. The Hawkeyes and the 10,002 in attendance were probably a little nervous at the 3:22 mark when this gritty team from suburban Connecticut was only down by five points.

The MAAC is considerably watered down this year. The Stags will not have to face Niagara’s Juan Mendez or Alvin Cruz or Rider’s Jerry Johnson. Moreover, unlike in years past, no team stands out as the favorite. In my column last week, I commented on the student attendance at home games. I will excuse the students for not showing up to the game last Monday against Providence because the team was coming off a 31 point drubbing at the hands of Saint Joseph’s.

But with the Stags’ recent success, there is no reason why the student section should not be packed on Friday night.

After all, you never know: this could be the first step toward a conference championship. Crazier things have happened.

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