Tag Archives: Fairfield basketball

2013 MAAC Basketball Tournament Preview

Every year, in practically every conference, you’ll hear the phrase “wide open” in reference to the league tournament. Coaches say it out of respect to other teams; the media uses it as a hedge against their predictions; P.R. folks spit it out to generate hype. So bear with me when I tell you that this weekend’s Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference men’s basketball tournament is wide open.

But if it’s not true this season in this conference, it never will be. “The charm of our team is that we know we can lose to any team,” Joe Mihalich said during Monday’s conference call with the media. Mihalich is the coach of Niagara, the league’s No. 1 seed. Held at the MassMutualCenter, a neutral site in Springfield, Mass., nearly every team has a reasonable shot at the title.
Continue reading 2013 MAAC Basketball Tournament Preview

MAAC Basketball Tournament 2011: Semifinals

BRIDGEPORT, Conn.—The semifinal games were played at the Arena at Harbor Yard on Sunday. Iona and St. Peter’s will play for the MAAC title on Monday night on 7:00 on ESPN2.

No. 4 Saint Peter’s 62, No. 1 Fairfield 48

It was a tale of two halves, if ever there was one. The numbers tell the story: St. Peter’s led 40-15 at the end of the first half. Fairfield got off to a rocky start, but was down just eight, 22-14, with six minutes left in the half. That’s when the craziness began. The Peacocks went on an 18-1 run to close out the half.

Fairfield finished the half converting just four field goals in 18 attempts (22 percent) while committing an astounding 13 turnovers. Colin Nickerson alone had six turnovers. For the Stags, the passes that weren’t sailing out of bounds were slipping through their hands. St. Peter’s, on the other hand, shot 57 percent (15-of-26) and only turned it over four times. Wesley Jenkins had 10 for the Peacocks at the break. There were a number of defensive lapses very uncharacteristic of Fairfield, the league’s best defensive team.

“The first 20 minutes, we just weren’t ready to play,” Fairfield head coach Ed Cooley said. “We were listless; we didn’t play with a lot of emotion. We were really out of character as a group.”

The Stags looked more like themselves in the second half. They fed off the home crowd and ratcheted up the defensive pressure to start the half on a 13-0 run. St. Pete’s did not get its first basket until the 13:39 mark. Fairfield scored eight consecutive points after that to extend the run to 21-2 and cut the deficit to just six with 8:05 left.

“Even as coaches, how do you handle going in and talking to your guys [when you have such a big lead]?” St. Peter’s head coach John Dunne said. “Do you stay fired up? Do you yell and scream and then maybe they go out and shoot it too quick? But at the same time you don’t want to be passive and hold the ball too long.”

At the start of the second half, whatever the Peacocks were doing wasn’t working. “We just weren’t being aggressive looking up the court against their pressure,” Dunne said. “And then we pulled it out too much when we should have attacked. I think emotionally we had a little bit of a letdown and we just weren’t focused enough. [Assistant coach] Bruce Hamburger kept saying to me, ‘Once we get our first basket or two we’ll be OK.’ It took a little too long to get there.”

I’d say so. St. Pete’s second basket did not come until the 7:56 mark. However, Hamburger was right, because although Fairfield was able to trim the margin to six for a second time on the ensuing possession, the Peacocks responded with consecutive baskets and never let their lead get to single digits again.

St. Peter’s players celebrate as senior Warren Edney leaves the court.

The numbers for the second half were pretty similar to the first, except the teams were reversed: St. Pete’s made just 7-of-26 shots (26 percent) and committed 10 turnovers, while Fairfield shot 40 percent. The Stags finished with 22 turnovers.

“I thought what has hurt us the entire year [hurt us again today],” Cooley said. “Our team habits really caught us in the end. Our team’s habit is we continuously turn the ball over. We just didn’t make smart decisions with the ball and that was really the turning point in today’s game, even when we cut it back to six…But then the devil got us again. And our devil is turning the ball over.”

All-MAAC First-Team point guard Derek Needham had perhaps his worst game in a Fairfield uniform. The sophomore shot just 1-of-12 from the field, including 1-for-8 from three, and committed seven turnovers. “He played really well yesterday and he played with a lot of emotion,” Dunne said of Needham’s 22-point performance against Marist. “He was single-handedly carrying them, I thought. We weren’t going to let him beat us. We put a little more length on him than we normally do with Steve Samuels and Yvon Raymond. If we went down today, it wasn’t going to be because he was going to kill us. That being said, he did get some open looks, he just missed a couple of them that he normally does make.”

They say basketball is a game of runs and in this game there were two really big ones. St. Peter’s was simply too big to overcome. “We didn’t have a good night shooting, so we tried to speed the game up,” Cooley said. “We think our team speed is fantastic, but we needed all the things to fall when you’re down 25.”

In the end, St. Peter’s was able to beat Fairfield for the first time in 13 tries. And Fairfield, the regular season champ, will have to settle for the NIT. Fairfield students wore t-shirts that read, “Our House, Our Time,” and indeed they thought it was, after finally wrestling away the regular season league crown and hosting rights for the tourney from Siena. But such is life in a one-bid league: one loss and dreams of the Dance go up in smoke.

“It hurts,” Cooley said. “I hurt for my seniors, I hurt for our university, I hurt for our community, because we feel we built a championship team with our recruiting, and it just didn’t happen.”

No. 2 Iona 83, No. 3 Rider 59

On Sunday morning, before the MAAC Tournament semifinals, Saint Peter’s leading scorer, Wesley Jenkins, sent a text message to his cousin, Iona starter Rashon Dwight. “See you in the championship,” it read. Dwight texted back: “Take care of Fairfield first and then we’ll take care of Rider.”

Jenkins (who scored 14 points) and St. Pete’s did just that, eliminating the top seed by a score of 62-48. Dwight held up his end of the bargain, draining five threes and scoring 19 to help Iona crush the Broncs, 83-59.

The seniors have gone head to head in this family rivalry for four years at the college level, but never have the stakes been this high. The winner of Monday night’s game will win the MAAC title and earn a trip to the Big Dance.

“[The St. Peter’s players are] on the same floor as us in the hotel,” Iona’s Scott Machado said after the semifinal victory. “When we came back from the win [on Saturday night], they were all cheering for us. So now it’s a coincidence that we’re both in the championship against each other.”

Head coach Tim Cluess continued: “Can I finish that story? Because Scott left a part out. Last night, one end of the hall was Saint Peter’s, one end was us. They were having a dance off in the hall. We had two loose teams there last night.”

So who won the dance competition? “We did,” the four Iona players said in unison.

If the Gaels can beat St. Pete’s on the basketball court for the third time this season, they’ll be doing much more meaningful dancing next week.

MAAC Basketball Tournament 2011: Quarterfinals

BRIDGEPORT, Conn.—The quarterfinals were held today at the Arena at Harbor Yard. In addition to the games listed below, St. Peter’s beat Loyola, 70-60, in the first game of the day, and No. 3 Rider beat Canisius 79-64, in the final game of the night.

No. 1 Fairfield 55, No. 9 Marist 31

With 7:28 left in the first half, Fairfield head coach Ed Cooley raised his palms to the ceiling and looked up, shaking his head. Warren Edney had just slipped and fell on an uncontested fast break and lost the ball out of bounds. The Stags only had 14 points. That was twice as many as Marist had, though.

And so it went for Cooley’s squad in its quarterfinal matchup, as Fairfield defeated the Red Foxes 55-31.

“As bad as we were offensively, we were that much more dominant on defense,” Cooley said. Marist’s 31 points were the lowest in MAAC Tournament history. The Red Foxes, who beat Niagara yesterday, converted just 12-of-41 shots (29 percent) and turned it over a whopping 26 times. Fairfield shot under 40 percent and committed 17 turnovers.

But the Stags have First-Team All-MAAC point guard Derek Needham, who led all scorers with 22 points. In fact, Needham outscored Marist in the first half, 15-14 (Fairfield led 27-14). Not until the 15:34 mark in the second half did Marist overtake him.

To the Marist defenders, Derek Needham was a blur.

It was an ugly win, but as the cliché goes: a win is a win, especially in an elimination tournament. Cooley was thrilled to advance, where No. 4 seed St. Peter’s awaits. “Can you guys feel my energy?” he asked members of the media after the game. “I can’t wait to play tomorrow.”

No. 2 Iona 94, No. 7 Siena 64

It is official: For the first time since 2007, the Siena Saints won’t be the MAAC Tournament champions. The No. 2 seed Iona Gaels crushed Siena 94-64 to advance to the semifinals. The Saints had won the previous three tournaments, all played on their home court in Albany. The last time they didn’t win was the last time the tourney was held here at the Arena at Harbor Yard.

As for Iona, it was its first postseason victory since 2006, when it won the whole thing. That meant no player on the Iona roster had won a single tournament game. That changed tonight thanks to Mike Glover’s 31 points and the team’s 9-of-17 shooting from beyond the arc.

“I thought we were a little slow to loose balls. It may have been last night’s game,” Siena head coach Mitch Buonaguro said, referencing Siena’s first round overtime victory over Manhattan that ended just a few minutes before midnight. “We just didn’t have our legs like we should. To play a team like this you’ve got to be on full tilt the way they play.”

The way Iona plays is fast. They push the ball up the court, even after the opponent scores, and like a game with a high number of possessions. Did Siena get caught up trying to play at that tempo? “Yeah, probably,” Buonaguro said. “We took some shots that probably were quick. We probably should have had a little more patience.”

The loss means the end of the college careers for Ryan Rossiter, who was named the conference’s player of the year earlier this week, and Clarence Jackson. Both reached the NCAA Tournament three times. “We were very fortunate. A lot of guys don’t even get to play in one [NCAA Tournament],” Jackson said.

MAAC Basketball 2011 Tournament: 3 Weeks to Go

Update III: See my post on the semifinal round of the MAAC basketball tournament.

Update II: See my post on the quarterfinal round of the MAAC basketball tournament.

Update: See my new post on the opening round of MAAC basketball tournament, as the tourney has now begun.

The MAAC men’s basketball regular season is hitting the home stretch and the conference tournament, held this year at the Arena at Harbor Yard, Fairfield’s home court in Bridgeport, Conn., is just three weeks away.

Each of the 10 MAAC teams has five remaining regular season conference games, starting with tonight’s action. In order to get a feel for where each contending team stands as the Tournament approaches, I got in touch with beat writers for six schools.* I asked them where they projected their team to finish in the standings, what their team needs to do in order to win the Tournament, and what factors could prevent them from making a deep run.

*I covered Iona, and I chose to omit Marist (3-10), Manhattan (2-11), and Niagara (2-11), as they will most likely be in the play-in round (as the 7-10 seeds) and won’t be making a serious Tournament run.

1. Fairfield Stags (11-2 in MAAC, 18-5 overall)
Remaining games: at Manhattan, at St. Peter’s, Marist, Siena, at Iona

On remaining games: I do not think the Stags will be caught in the regular season. Despite the recent loss to Rider, a two-game lead with five to play is a nice luxury and I can’t see the coaching staff letting the players lose any focus at this point in the season.

Why Fairfield can win: Fairfield needs to stick to its identity and it has a great shot at winning the tournament. Strong team defense and a well-balanced scoring attack are the traits that have put the Stags in first place. Having the tournament played on our home court is obviously a major advantage as well.

Why Fairfield could falter: Every team is capable of mental lapses and bad shooting nights. It’s kind of scary to think that a great, consistent season atop the conference can end in one bad night, but that’s the way it is in the MAAC.

–Tom Fitzpatrick, staff writer, The Fairfield Mirror

2. St. Peter’s Peacocks (9-4, 14-10)
Remaining games: at Marist, Fairfield, at Siena, Iona, at Rider

On remaining games: It will be tough for St. Peter’s to remain in second place. With five games remaining, only the Marist game is somewhat comfortable and that is on the road. The remaining four games are toss-ups. Both Fairfield and Iona will be very tough—I’ll go with a split. Siena and Rider on the road will also be tough; probably another split. So I would think 3-2 in the five remaining games.

Why St. Peter’s can win: St. Peter’s has played its best when players like Ryan Bacon, Jeron Belin, or Steven Samuels have stepped up. I don’t think Wesley Jenkins alone is enough for St. Peter’s to be in top form. Jenkins can win a game for them but St. Pete’s has played its best when they get contributions from multiple players and Bacon is the most important once you get past Jenkins.

Wesley Jenkins and Ryan Bacon, two keys for the Peacocks, go to work against the Gaels.

Why St. Peter’s could falter: St. Peter’s can win the MAAC but I believe its chances are less than 50/50. How they play their remaining five games will be a tell-tale sign. If they go 4-1 or better, that would be a serious indicator that they can contend. Anything less than 3-2 would be a sign that they could make a quick exit from the tournament.

–JC Hoops, contributor, The Jersey Journal

3. Rider Broncs (9-4, 17-8)
Remaining games: Canisius, Niagara, at Loyola, at Marist, St. Peter’s

On remaining games: I think Rider will finish second in the standings. This team is playing really well right now and if it takes care of business against Canisius and Niagara this weekend I like it to push on and finish in that second spot.

Why Rider can win: To win the MAAC tourney Rider will have to continue to shoot the ball well from three-point territory. The Broncs lead the conference in three-point shooting percentage and rank 11th in the country in that same category. If they get hot, look out. They just dropped 97 on a stingy Fairfield team. The key player is always going to be senior point guard Justin Robinson. The offens runs through him and he has a knack for taking over games in the second half. Another player to watch is Novar Gadson. At 6’7, 230, he has a Big East body and when decides to drive to the basket there aren’t many players in the MAAC who can stop him.

Why Rider could falter: Free. Throw. Shooting. Rider only shoots it at 63.4 percent from the line and outside of Robinson only two players—Brandon Penn and Jon Thompson—shoot at least 70 percent. Mike Ringgold shoots just 43.9 percent and opponents use the “hack-a-Shaq” technique against him because he struggles so much. If something comes back to haunt them it will be a 9-for-20 performance from the free throw line.

More: Rider team is very good on the road. Like I said above, 11-4 in road/neutral games, and I know Tommy Dempsey likes taking this team on the road because he thinks it focuses better.

–Kyle Franko, contributor, The Trentonian

4. Loyola (MD) Greyhounds (8-5, 12-11)
Remaining games: Niagara, Canisius, Rider, at Niagara, at Canisius

On remaining games: Since early January, the Hounds have gone on a 7-3 run in the MAAC. Their play has been boosted by great bench scoring led by the pair of J’hared Hall and Justin Drummond. The trio of Drummond, Hall and Robert Olson gives Loyola three of the best and highest-percentage outside shooters in the MAAC. When the three of them are able to hit their shots, Loyola is tough to beat. Second place seems realistic for the Hounds as they stand a game back of second and hold the valuable season split with first place Fairfield.

Why Loyola can win: The Hounds are more than capable of winning the MAAC Tournament and they have proven that with wins over Saint Peter’s, Fairfield, Iona and Siena. When things are going well, this is one of the most dangerous and balanced rosters in the MAAC. If Loyola’s shooters can continue to take on a good bulk of the Hounds’ scoring, they have the ability to play with anyone.

Why Loyola could falter: Loyola sometimes struggles against a strong 2-3 zone defense and that was evident when Siena visited. The Siena defense gave Loyola fits as the Hounds were unable to hit the shots that Siena was giving them. They seemed to get frustrated and pass the ball around the perimeter as they struggled with scoring. Their offense sometimes seems to get into funks like this when playing against a tough zone.

–Rich Conforti, sports editor, The Greyhound

5. Iona Gaels (8-5, 14-10)
Remaining games: Siena, at Marist, at Manhattan, at St. Peter’s, Fairfield

On remaining games: Iona will likely be favored in four of its remaining five games. I think 4-1 is an optimistic estimate, with 3-2 perhaps being more likely. Either way, I think the Gaels will wind up in the 4/5 game in the Tournament, a rubber match against Loyola, with the winner likely to face Fairfield in the semifinals.

Mike Glover will be the Player of the Year in the MAAC, but he’d much rather be the MAAC Tourney MVP. (Credit: Warren Rosenberg/ICGaels.com)

Why Iona can win: Iona has the best player in the conference in forward Mike Glover. After taking the league by storm, Glover converted just 11-of-33 attempts and averaged a pedestrian 8.3 points over a four-game stretch in January. Teams used multiple defenders to frustrate Glover and prevent his easy conversions off feeds from point guard Scott Machado. But in Iona’s last game, Glover was back to his old ways, scoring 20 on 8-of-12 shooting, including several dunks. The Machado-to-Glover combination was clicking, and that is a key for the Gaels. Also, deep threats Kyle Smyth, Jermel Jenkins, and Sean Armand can stretch defenses and take some pressure off Glover.

Why Iona could falter: Iona’s 10 losses have been by an average of 4.1 points. That margin is even smaller for MAAC games. Often times a defensive lapse or a turnover in the final moments has been the difference in a one-possession game. Late-game execution will be critical if Iona plans to win the Tournament.

6. Siena Saints (7-6, 10-13)
Remaining games: at Iona, at Manhattan, St. Peter’s, at Fairfield, Marist

On remaining games: Siena has to maintain its spot in the top six of the standings if they want any chance of winning the tournament. Two weeks ago, I would have said no doubt. But Canisius has turned things on, so it will definitely be a race to stay out of the play-in round. If the Saints can go 3-2 over their last five games, they should be able to stay out of that round.

Why Siena can win: I think Siena is more than capable of winning the tournament. Remember, no other MAAC player has won a league championship game and every player on the Siena roster is undefeated in MAAC tournament games. The easiest way for the Saints to win a fourth straight MAAC title is to have Clarence Jackson back and healthy. That’s probably the biggest key. Other than that, everyone will have to step up.

Why Siena could falter: It will be a lack of consistency. Siena has been inconsistent all season. Their longest winning streak and losing streak is each three games. They haven’t been able to get the momentum going all year. You have to win three games to win the MAAC Tournament and the Saints haven’t shown the ability to be at their best for three straight games.

–Andrew Santillo, staff writer, The Troy Record

7. Canisius Golden Griffins (6-7, 12-11)
Remaining games: at Rider, Loyola, at Niagara, Manhattan, Loyola

On remaining games: Right now, they could finish in maybe fifth or sixth place and avoid that 7-10 game in the MAAC Tournament.

Canisius is the only team in the MAAC that has five players averaging at least 10 points per game.

Why Canisius can win: Considering they have five seniors [four of which are starters], they are capable of making a run in the MAAC simply because there isn’t a dominant team in the league. Fairfield is pulling away, but they aren’t as good as they were last season. It’s going to be challenging, but Fairfield can be beaten on its home floor in the Tournament.

Why Canisius could falter: Canisius has to rebound better and make shots—it’s really that simple. They are one of the more athletic teams in the league but sometimes they don’t block out in key situations, which leads to putbacks by the opposition. They are a better overall team than last year when they had Frank Turner but a go-to scorer hasn’t been established.

–Rodney McKissic, staff writer, The Buffalo News

MAAC Basketball Update: Iona, Siena, Fairfield

Last night’s Siena/Fairfield game was the last MAAC game until 2011, which makes this a good time to review what’s been happening in the conference. Which teams have exceeded preseason expectations? Which have been underwhelming? Who are the players to watch?

Let’s start with the team I know best and analyze the other two teams many prognosticators had in their preseason top three, before looking at the rest of the league.

Iona Gaels (7-3, 2-0 in MAAC)

I covered the Gaels last season and attended their first three home games this season before today. Although Iona was picked fourth in the only official preseason poll, all signs indicate this is one of the top two teams in the MAAC.

Most of the returning players have improved, some even more than expected. And no matter what logical criteria you used to make your vote, Mike Glover would be the MVP of the league if voting took place today.

As can be expected for a new head coach coming from outside the program, it was clear during Iona’s preseason practices that Tim Cluess was still getting familiar with his players. Losing to Bryant to cap an 0-3 trip to Cleveland is unacceptable, but the seven straight wins Iona has rattled off since make that a distant memory (for fans at least; Cluess still wears a t-shirt from that tournament to remind his players of how bad the Gaels can be if they don’t work hard).

Mike Glover throws it down with power. (Credit: Walt Middleton/ICGaels.com)

The revival has been led by Glover. After he hung 39 on Canisius, head coach Tom Parrotta said: “He asserted himself early and often. Glover was the difference in the game. Clearly we didn’t have an answer for him.” The 6’7, 215-pound forward scored 21 and pulled down 17 boards in an upset victory over Richmond. I am excited to see him matched up with the preseason Player of the Year (more on that later).

Glover’s dominating inside play has opened up things for Iona’s outside shooters as well. Jermel Jenkins and Kyle Smyth are Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the conference in three-pointers made per game. Both are shooting at least 40 percent from downtown. Niagara coach Joe Mihalich was certainly impressed. “My goodness, Smyth doesn’t even look—great shooter, quick release. They have great balance; a guy that scores around the basket and guys that shoot the ball. You can’t cheat. You’ve got to play them honest. They’ve got a lot of ways to get you.”

Fairfield Stags (6-3, 2-0)

Fairfield didn’t pick up an impressive nonconference win, but last night’s 72-55 smackdown of Siena at the Times Union Center—where the Saints had won 28 straight MAAC games—is enough to validate its preseason No. 1 ranking.

Last year’s Rookie of the Year, point guard Derek Needham, is joined by forwards Warren Edney and Yorel Hawkins, to make up Fairfield’s top three scorers. Due to injuries, Edney missed all of last season and Hawkins missed the last 10 games. Greg Nero is another upperclassman who was a top player two years ago but missed all of last season. He had been averaging 20 minutes per game this season but fatigue issues kept him from making the trip to Albany for last night’s contest.

This is clearly a top-tier MAAC team that has the advantage Siena held the last two seasons: The conference tournament will be at its home arena. The Stags’ early-season MAAC schedule is favorable, so it will be interesting to see how far Fairfield can make it without a conference loss.

Siena Saints (2-6, 1-1)

Some were alarmed immediately, after Siena saw its 39-game home winning streak snapped in the opener against Vermont. Most were concerned heading into yesterday’s showdown with Fairfield, but optimistic observers could point out that Minnesota and Butler are quality teams and the other two losses were in overtime. Perhaps it was just bad luck for the Saints.

But after the loss to Fairfield, in which Siena was outrebounded 32-19 and its star player, Ryan Rossiter, was held to seven points, it’s hard to find a confident Siena supporter. I, however, don’t think the sky is falling in Albany. I’m simply not sure why the expectations were so high for the Saints.

Let’s not forget that in addition to their coach, they lost All-MAAC performers Ronald Moore, Edwin Ubiles, and Alex Franklin, last year’s Player of the Year. Rossiter (the aforementioned preseason POY) and Clarence Jackson are returning players any coach in this league would love to have, but the supporting cast has not been good enough so far this season. But many of those guys are underclassmen and have the potential to develop into more valuable role players. How much they develop will determine whether or not Mitch Buonaguro’s first year as head coach is a success.

Elsewhere in the MAAC:

The Niagara Purple Eagles (2-7, 0-2) are off to a terrible start, but this is both a young and injury-depleted team. Mihalich says that is just an excuse for their poor play. After the loss to Iona last weekend, he said: “We knew we weren’t going to be good in December. Our goal is to get better all the time. We’ve got to hope that by the end of February, beginning of March, we can be a team that can win some games.” That’s what happened last season after Niagara’s ideal starters were all healthy at the same time. This team relies far more heavily on freshmen, but I expect this team to be much more competitive later in the year.

After seeing them in person, I’m not sure the Canisius Golden Griffins (3-3, 0-1) have the guard play to improve upon their preseason No. 7 ranking.

The St. Peter’s Peacocks (4-4, 2-2) were the interesting choice for third in the preseason poll, but star senior Wesley Jenkins is back after missing only four games. He scored 22 in St. Pete’s last game, against Manhattan.

The Marist Red Foxes (2-8, 2-0) have already exceeded their win total from last season. Let that sink in, especially since both victories have come in conference. Marist swept a weekend at home against Niagara and Canisius and doesn’t play another MAAC team until January 7.

The Manhattan Jaspers (2-8, 0-2) were picked just one spot ahead of Marist in the preseason poll, and they simply don’t have the offensive firepower to be a serious contender.

The Rider Broncs (6-4, 1-1) and the Loyola (MD) Greyounds (3-5, 0-2) were picked to finish in the middle of the pack. Rider’s top three leaders in minutes and points are all upperclassmen, so the loss of superstar Ryan Thompson might not be as critical as expected. Senior Jamal Barney has led the Greyhounds in scoring every year he’s been on campus.

Derek Needham of Fairfield: MAAC Freshman of the Year

If you are a casual basketball fan, not too familiar with names and class standing, and you saw Derek Needham play this season, you’d be shocked to learn he was named the MAAC Rookie of the Year. This is not because you wouldn’t think he was deserving, but because you didn’t think he was eligible.

Needham has played beyond his freshman standing since he took the court for Fairfield. He is averaging 16.3 points, 5.2 assists, and 1.8 steals per game, all in the top five in the conference and first among freshmen. He’s also pulling down 3.3 rebounds per game, an impressive number for a 5’11” point guard.

The numbers, while incredible, don’t tell the whole story. Needham is a leader for Fairfield, no small feat considering the Stags finished in second place in the MAAC after posting a 13-5 record. You often hear announcers and even coaches talk about a “freshman wall,” but if one existed for Needham, he bulldozed right through it.

After winning the rookie award and being named to the All-MAAC second team, Needham elevated his game even more in the conference tournament in Albany 10 days ago, proving he belonged right up there with the league’s backcourt stars, most of whom are upperclassmen. In Fairfield’s first game against Canisius, Needham played all 40 minutes and dropped a game-high 29 points, outperforming senior point guard Frank Turner, who scored 15 before an unfortunate incident led to his ejection with five minutes remaining. The Stags won 67-57.

Against Niagara and senior guard Tyrone Lewis, a name associated with clutch play in the MAAC tournament, Needham was outscored by Lewis 20-17, but Fairfield won 69-63 to advance to the final. Lewis had to watch the final 1:28 from the bench after fouling out.

During Fairfield’s postseason run, Needham admitted he owes some of his success against the elite, veteran guards in the league to imitation. “When we watch film, I like to watch them,” he said. “I feel we have great guards in our league, and I can be one of them. My preparation is to watch what they do and maybe take some of their moves.”

The Stags came out on the wrong side of an overtime game against No. 1 seed Siena, but Needham’s 16 points and three assists led the team. Playing all 45 minutes, he outperformed the Saints’ Ronald Moore, who scored nine and added six assists.

Siena head coach Fran McCaffery was certainly impressed with Needham’s play throughout the season. “Phenomenal point guard,” he said. “One of the best freshman point guards I’ve seen in my 27 years.”

In fact, every MAAC coach, media member, and fan who had an opinion on Needham had a positive thing to say. And why wouldn’t they? The freshman from Dalton, Ill. is a star on the court and appears to be a great kid off of it. The person who knows Needham as well as any of these people, Fairfield head coach Ed Cooley, had the highest of praise. He was asked whether he knew Needham would be this good so quickly.

“When we recruited Derek I told my boss, ‘We’ve got a point guard. We’re going to give him the ball right away. We feel he can be good,'” Cooley said after his team had advanced to the championship. “But that kid’s a really special talent. Hell no, I didn’t think he was that good; you’d call me a liar.”

To expect a freshman to achieve the level of success Needham has is unreasonable, but Cooley obviously saw a lot of traits he liked, even if some of them have blossomed earlier than anticipated. “Not only is he good (as a player), he’s a great person…unbelievable character, natural-born leader. And that’s really what our program has been missing, and to get a freshman to be able to do that, you can’t ask for more than that. He’s a home run recruit.”

Needham and the Stags came up just short in their quest for an NCAA Tournament appearance, but they’ll still get a taste of the postseason in the College Insider Tournament, which starts tonight. Fairfield plays at George Mason.

With the 2011 MAAC Tournament moving to Fairfield’s home arena in Bridgeport, the Stags have hopes of their soon-to-be sophomore star leading them to a much bigger postseason stage.

Marist Womens Basketball: A MAAC Dynasty

ALBANY, N.Y. — The big story on the women’s side is that Marist is the MAAC Tournament Champion for the fifth straight year after defeating Fairfield 66-49 early Sunday afternoon. But before I get into that, it would be unfair not to mention Fairfield’s unbelievable run to the MAAC title game. To win nine games in a row and get itself to the final after all the injuries this season was truly incredible. Winning its third game in three days with a virtually non-existent bench was simply too tall of a task. However, if it weren’t for the overwhelming excellence of the opponent, the Stags may have been able to do it.

The fact that the opponent was top-seeded Marist was no surprise. There hasn’t been a MAAC Tournament final in the last seven years that hasn’t involved the Red Foxes. The most amazing part, though, is of course the consecutive championships. Consider that on the men’s side the most consecutive titles won is three (by LaSalle). It may seem like the Saints have been dominating for a long time, but the Siena men have only won two in a row and are appearing in only their fourth straight final.

In other words, the Marist women’s basketball dynasty is unlike any other in MAAC hoops history. Leading the way is 6′ forward Rachele Fitz. The senior has done nothing but win since arriving on campus. Marist head coach Brian Giorgis said, “If there’s a better player in the history of this league, I’d like to meet her.” Hard to argue with him considering Fitz’s resume which, after this weekend’s wins and awards, includes four MAAC regular season and conference titles, three MAAC Player of the Year awards, and two MAAC Tournament MVPs, to name a few.

She is averaging 18 points and eight rebounds this season. Despite some foul trouble that kept her on the bench for a period in the first half, Fitz still scored 15 in the title game, shooting seven-of-12 from the field. She is modest enough to deflect praise to her teammates and coaching staff, but anyone involved with women’s basketball in the MAAC knows about her great career. A couple of wins in the upcoming NCAA Tournament and even more people in the college basketball community will know too.

Fairfield eliminates the Gaels from one tournament, helps them get into another: Iona may have lost to the Stags on Saturday, but Fairfield’s loss to Marist in the title game guaranteed that the Gaels would receive an invite to the NIT. Per NCAA rules, if the regular season champ also wins the conference tournament, then the second-place team automatically gets an NIT bid. Therefore, Marist’s win clinched a spot for Iona.

Iona head coach Anthony Bozzella, good friends with Giorgis, was appreciative of the Red Foxes accomplishment. Said Giorgis: “I already got a text that said ‘congrats and thanks.'”