Fairfield Primer 2012

This is an important game for Tony Bennett’s club.

After a tough, season-opening loss to George Mason, 63-59, at the Patriot Center, the Virginia Cavaliers return to Charlottesville to square off against the Fairfield Stags of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) in the opening round of the Preseason NIT. Can the Cavs turn things around with a win, or will they fall to 0-2 on the season? Find out in the Fairfield Primer.

1. Team Introduction. Last season, the Stags’ first under new head coach Sydney Johnson, Fairfield finished 22-15 and 12-6 in the MAAC, tied for 3rd in the conference. Three of those wins came in the postseason CIT tournament before Fairfield fell to Mercer 64-59 in the CIT semifinals. The Stags have been tabbed to finish 4th in the MAAC this year in the preseason Coaches’ Poll. In its opening game, Fairfield slipped by Central Connecticut State (CCSU), 64-63 in overtime, in a Saturday night tilt. With 4 Stags playing 35+ minutes in that game (including 44 minutes by star Derek Needham), which ended after 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, you wonder whether the undermanned team might be a bit gassed for this Monday night showdown at 7 p.m.

2. Offense. Johnson came to Fairfield after 4 years at Princeton. In his last season in the Ivy League, he guided the Tigers to a 25-7 record and an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2011, completing a rebuilding process that began with a 6-23 campaign in 2007-2008. Princeton is Johnson’s alma mater, and, as you might expect, he runs a variation on the Princeton offense. Johnson’s variation is the “Princeton High Post,” similar to the offense that John Thompson III runs at Georgetown and the offense that Herb Sendek ran in his later years at NC State.

The goals of the Princeton High Post are at least three-fold: (1) opening up the area behind the free throw line; (2) forcing opposing bigs out on the perimeter; and (3) allowing guards to shed defenders. Here, from Coach’s Clipboard, is some action out of the Princeton 2-3 high set.

The best indicator for how Tony Bennett’s Pack-Line defense will do against the Princeton High Post is how his Washington State’s teams did against Sendek’s Sun Devils of Arizona State when they were both in the PAC-10. 75-55, 48-47 56-55, 59-47, 65-55, and 51-49. Those were the scores of their six games, all Wazzu wins. Most importantly, those last two wins were by Bennett’s last, rebuilding squad against Sendek’s sole NCAA team since going out West. Anyone who watched the George Mason game knows that UVa struggled defensively with its youth and without Jontel Evans . That said, I like the matchup of this offense against the Hoos’ defense.

3. Defense. Sydney Johnson’s teams typically run man-to-man defense, with some zone defense as a backup if the opposing team is too fast or athletic for them to handle. Last year, the Stags were fairly effective defensively, ranking No. 29 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. Most importantly, they were No. 12 in the nation in opponent turnovers per possession. With their entire backcourt returning this year, ball security should be at a premium for the Cavaliers given their issues at the guard positions.

4. Player Turnover. Last season, Boston College transfer Rakim Sanders led the Stags in points (16.6), rebounds (8.2), and steals (1.4) per game. The All-MAAC forward is now lacing them up in Israel with Sylven Landsberg. Center Ryan Olander led that team in blocks per game (1.8) and was third and fourth in rebounds (4.4) and points (8.6) per game, respectively. He also has graduated. Backup point guard Sean Crawford, who was seventh on that team in points per game (4.3), has transferred to Adelphi University. Sophomore combo guard Jamel Fields (3.5 PPG) transferred to St. Peter’s. Finally, Adam Jones, a 6’8″ freshman that pitched in 1.2 points per game for the Stags last year, transferred to Flagler College.

5. Possible Starters. Let’s take a look at the likely Fairfield starters:

Point guard: Derek Needham (No. 3), a 5’11”, 180-pound senior will man the point for the Stags. Last season, he paced Fairfield with 3.4 assists per game and was second in scoring (11.8 ppg). While his 39.7% shooting percentage might not wow you, he connected on 38.9% of his 6.2 3-point attempts per game, yielding an effective field goal percentage of 52%. Needham missed the final eight games of last season with a broken bone in his left foot but appears to be back to full speed. In the Stags’ opener, he scored 18 points on 7-14 shooting, but also tried to do too much, turning it over 7 times.

Point guard 2: Desmond Wade (No. 11), a 5’8″, 150-pound redshirt senior, might get the start alongside Needham, giving the Stags a dual point guard look. Wade has been described as “jet quick and scrappy tough,” so he could certainly cause UVa’s bigger guards some problems on the defensive end. Last year, he averaged 1.2 steals per game and 3.0 assists against only 1.4 turnovers per game. Like his backcourt counterpart, Wade is a deep threat, hitting on 39.1% of his shots from behind the arc last season. That said, he had 0 points and as many turnovers as assists (4 of each) before fouling out in 22 minutes against CCSU, so we could see Colin Nickerson getting the start here instead.

Small Forward: Fairfield likely will start Keith Matthews (No. 41), a 6’5″, 200-pound junior, at the “3.” Matthews looked mediocre for most of last year averaging a mere 3.7 points and 1.9 rebounds per game in 13 minutes per game. But then he turned it on in the Stags’ seven postseason games, averaging 8.8 points and almost 4 rebounds a game. And he seems to have carried that momentum into this season, scoring 15 points, and grabbing 7 boards in the win over Central Connecticut State.

Power Forward: Maurice Barrow (No. 15), a 6’5″, 210-pound junior, should continue to start as an undersized power forward for Fairfield. Barrow started 37 games for the Stags last year, averaging 6 rebounds and 9.3 points per game on 50.9% shooting from the floor. Barrow seems to be a consistent player who always ends the night with a solid stat line, but he had foul trouble in the team’s game against CCSU and exhibition against Bridgeport (a 54-52 win). That said, he still had 7 points and 7 boards against CCSU.

Center: The major addition for Johnson’s squad this year seems to be Josip Mikulic (No. 10), a 7-foot, 228-pound freshman from Croatia by way of North Broward Prep. The big guy scored 12 points and grabbed 8 rebounds and supposedly is the real deal: an athletic big man with a sweet stroke that extends behind the arc (7 of his 11 field goal attempts against CCSU were 3-point attempts). Mikulic seems to be Fairfield’s version of Mike Tobey , so I will be very interested to see who gets the better of this matchup.

6. Key Reserves. Other notables for the Stags …

Shooting guard: As noted above, Colin Nickerson (No. 25), a 6’3″, 150-pound senior guard, could get the starting nod at the “2.” Statistically, he’s quite impressive, averaging 4.7 points per game in 18.6 minutes per game last season on 52.4% shooting. So, why did he only start 14 games and only average 18.6 minutes per game? Consistency. The knock of Nickerson is that he is often careless with the ball on the offensive end and relies upon reaching too often as part of his defensive repertoire. That said, he played 37 minutes against CCSU, scoring 10 points and registering 4 assists against no turnovers.

Power forward: Amadou Sidibe (No. 21), is a 6’8″, 215-pound freshman originally from West Africa. Sidibe didn’t pick up basketball until he entered high school, and he is viewed as a strong and athletic project whose best days on the hardwood are likely a few years away. Against CCSU, he scored a basket, had an assist, and collected 2 blocks and 2 rebounds in 16 minutes of work.

Others: Fairfield basically played a seven man rotation against Central Connecticut State with freshmen Marcus Gilbert and Justin Jenkins seeing a combined nine minutes of floor time in the overtime affair. I don’t expect them to make much of an impact against the Hoos.

7. Prediction. You might not think it, but the Fairfield game could be one of UVa’s most important out-of-conference contests this season. With a loss, the Hoos fall into the loser’s bracket of the NIT and face three more teams that will do nothing to help an NCAA or NIT resume. But win, and the Cavaliers probably will face a decent Delaware team with a shot at Madison Square Garden and two likely games against NCAA teams.

This early in the season and with Jontel Evans still (I assume) out for this game, I’m wary at looking at statistical predictions for this game, but the Team Rankings simulation projects this as a 71.6-66.4 UVa win. Given that Fairfield was No. 228 in adjusted tempo last season (and the Hoos were No. 338), I think the score will be a bit lower, especially considering both coaches’ deliberate approaches on offense and defense. I will pick the Cavaliers in this one, 66-61.