Category archive: Fairfield Stags
The MAAC regular-season conference race and postseason automatic qualifier berth just got more interesting and competitive with Jones joining the Gaels.
The truth is this league was already locked in to having one of the best races, outside of the power six, with or without Jones.
But now that he's eligible, the stakes are even higher with Fairfield and Iona preparing for what should be a chase to the finish. At the MAAC level, it will rival anything the Horizon or Missouri Valley has to offer this season.
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireAdding MoMo Jones to Iona's lineup makes the Gaels better. But will it be good enough to get past Fairfield in the MAAC?
"This league is very top heavy,'' said St. Peter's coach John Dunne, whose Peacocks stunned the field by winning the MAAC AQ on Fairfield's home court in Bridgeport, Conn., last season. "Iona and Fairfield are the most talented. The additions they have clearly make them much more talented. But it will be interesting to see how the dynamic changes those teams.''
Loyola (Md.) and Rider, both with many returnees, are seen as the potential St. Peter's in this league -- a team that could surprise the favorites and win the automatic berth with three strong days in Springfield, Mass. (site of this season's MAAC tournament).
"We got Jordan Latham eligible from Xavier, too,'' Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos said. "I like Fairfield 1, Iona 2 and us and Rider after that. I think it could be a great race. We're deep. We're not as talented. But we're as deep as any team in the league. The key will be Jeff Jones from Virginia for Rider. Can he light it up or not? Fairfield has a new coach, but [it'll] be fine. And [Iona's] [Mike] Glover will be a targeted man.''
MoMo Jones joins an Iona team that is led by returnees Scott Machado on the wing and Glover inside.
The difference between the Stags and Gaels is that Fairfield has two high-profile transfers instead of just one. Former Houston point guard Desmond Wade is also eligible, and he'll take over as the playmaker, sliding Needham to the wing with Sanders as a forward. "I think Rakim is the best player in the league,'' said former Fairfield coach Ed Cooley, now the head coach at Providence. "I don't think there is one matchup in the MAAC [that doesn't favor] him. There is an answer for Glover in the MAAC, and that's length in Olander. The question will be Fairfield's overall chemistry. Now there is a true point guard in Desmond Wade. But the X factor will be Rakim, because no one is close to him.''
Sanders was a tough matchup for ACC teams that played the Eagles. But his last season with BC started poorly with an ankle injury, and neither he nor the team recovered, as he couldn't fit back into the lineup with Reggie Jackson. Sanders found a new home with Cooley, a former BC assistant with strong ties to Sanders and Eagles coach Al Skinner. Cooley is gone, but new coach Sydney Johnson, formerly of Princeton, has been pleasantly surprised by Sanders so far.
The team went to Italy in August, and through the first week of practice, Sanders has lived up to the hype. "He has been very good for us, and there is a reason he started his career in the ACC,'' Johnson said. "He has that caliber of talent. He has a high basketball IQ. He looks the part, too. He's a strong physical kid, who is fast and quick and has an understanding of how to play. He does the right things, and he's unselfish. I'm very pleased with him.''
Johnson said Wade is much more of a natural point, but he can play off the ball like Needham. He said he plans to alternate who handles the ball.
That question is an ongoing issue at Iona now that MoMo Jones is eligible. Machado handled it last season. And Jones did the same for Arizona. Cooley said taking the ball out of Machado's hands could hurt the chemistry, unless this team jells quickly together.
Iona coach Tim Cluess hadn't addressed this topic, because he didn't know Jones' fate for this season. Jones got the waiver because he transferred back to New York, his hometown, to be closer to his ailing grandmother.
How does he solve the problem with who has the ball? "Get two balls,'' Cluess said. "That's the interesting part. Realistically we're just starting to work on it on the court since we didn't want to invest time since we didn't know if they could play together. We will look at who has the ball, will they be interchangeable or if either can play the wing.''
Finding consistency next to Glover inside is also a question for the next few weeks. The expectation was that junior forward Taaj Ridley could be that person, but he has been hampered by foot and Achilles issues.
"I think it's wide-open,'' said Cluess, whose Gaels lost to St. Peter's in the MAAC final last March after the Peacocks upset Fairfield. "Fairfield has the edge. They won it last year, and they have two high-major players. But Loyola has five starters back and is a team that is dangerous. We have to make sure we have that team chemistry. Fairfield has the Boston College transfer, and he could be the best player in the league. They added Wade to what should be a powerhouse. But I like our chances against anybody with the way we shoot the ball.''
Iona and Fairfield have the mix of high-level transfers and four-year players who have blossomed into high-level college players. Each team could win a NCAA tournament game or two in the right scenario. But getting an at-large berth will be determined in the next two months.
The schedules for each favor getting recognized by the selection committee in March. Iona is in the wide-open Puerto Rico Tip-Off with an opener against Purdue on Nov. 17 and the possibility of playing Temple if the Gaels can knock off the Boilermakers. Playing at Marshall, a C-USA top-two team and going on the road in a winnable matchup at Richmond highlight the schedule. It doesn't hurt for power-rating points that Iona plays 11 road games before January.
Fairfield plays at Minnesota, a sleeper in the Big Ten, and has a legit shot to win the weakened Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla. Beating Old Dominion in December in Springfield will help, too. Drawing top-five UConn in Hartford, Conn., and visiting Drexel in late December will also assist the power rating.
Johnson walked into a ready-made situation to win again. "This isn't a rebuilding project,'' said Johnson, who led the Tigers to a thrilling Ivy League playoff win over Harvard and then nearly clipped Kentucky in the NCAA tournament opener for both teams. "Ed positioned us. We don't have a lot of excuses. We're preparing ourselves the best we can for March. I want to look in the mirror and when the time comes I want us to have done everything we can to seize the moment and this opportunity.''
Five months later, he edged out Connecticut's Kemba Walker for Big East Player of the Year.
Using that as a backdrop, let's remember that the list of 50 Wooden nominees is flawed, much like any of the award lists. The Wooden Award does not allow its voters to nominate any freshmen or transfers (either four-year or junior college) on their ballots.
And with college basketball as loaded with talent as any year since 2007-08, narrowing it down to 50 is not easy. So below I've attempted to come up with the names that didn't make it, either as "just missed the cut" omissions or just because they're freshmen or transfers. These guys aren't on the list (which can be found here), but might show up when it's updated during the season.
This group is by no means definitive, either. There's no telling who else might emerge nationally as the games get under way.
Let's take a look
The omissions (in alphabetical order):
Julian Boyd, Long Island: The Blackbirds are the favorite again in the Northeast Conference and the main reason is because Boyd is back and ready to dominate the stat sheet.
D.J. Cooper, Ohio: The diminutive point guard does a little bit of everything; he averaged 15.8 ppg, 7.5 apg and 5.0 rpg for the Bobcats last season.
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesSeth Curry hasn't done enough to warrant a mention on a preseason watch list, but he might end up being a Wooden addition.
Jared Cunningham, Oregon State: Cunningham has some of the best hops in the sport and a chance to be a Pac-12 star, allowing the Beavers to finally move up in the standings this season.
Seth Curry, Duke: Curry was a standout shooter for the Blue Devils on their trip to China and could be one of the top scorers on the team.
Brandon Davies, BYU: Davies was recently reinstated to the Cougars, and the offense is expected to flow through him inside and out as BYU mounts a campaign to win the WCC in its first year in the league.
Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary's: SMC coach Randy Bennett envisions this as one of the best teams he's ever had, but a lot of that will have to do with whether Dellavedova can shoot like Mickey McConnell did last season.
Greg Echenique, Creighton: Echenique was a rebounding force for Venezuela this summer and should do even more for the Bluejays with a full season to work with.
Kyle Fogg, Arizona: Fogg is next in line to assume a leadership position for the Wildcats, who are in a position to compete for Pac-12 titles for years to come.
Kevin Foster, Santa Clara: As a sophomore, Foster sort of came out of nowhere to average 20.2 ppg and become one of the nation's top 3-point shooters.
Chris Gaston, Fordham: The Rams aren't any good, but the nation's leading returning rebounder (11.3 rpg) at least deserves a shout-out in this space.
Yancy Gates, Cincinnati: UC coach Mick Cronin said he'd be surprised if Gates wasn't one of the 10 names on the Big East preseason first team.
Rob Jones, Saint Mary's: Jones could be a double-double regular for the Gaels, and for Saint Mary's to win the WCC, Jones will have to be a star.
Doron Lamb, Kentucky: John Calipari says Lamb will be the Wildcats' best player. Just Coach Cal mind games, or the truth?
Meyers Leonard, Illinois: Leonard didn't contribute a whole lot as a freshman, but he was a hidden gem on the U.S. U-19 team in Latvia this summer. The Illini are expecting big things out of him.
C.J. McCollum, Lehigh: McCollum is the nation's leading returning scorer (21.8 ppg) and is in the top five in steals (2.5 spg). Oh, and he did that as a freshman. What more do you need to know?
Cameron Moore, UAB: The Blazers have been consistently good under Mike Davis and have had unheralded C-USA stars. Moore is the latest.
Toure' Murry, Wichita State: If the Shockers win the Missouri Valley over Creighton, a lot of the credit will end up going to the veteran Murry.
Rafael Suanes/US PresswireRyan Pearson looks to lead Mason to another run to the NCAAs.
Brandon Paul, Illinois: Illini coach Bruce Weber was a bit surprised Paul didn't crack the top 50 on the Wooden list, given his overall importance to this team.
Ryan Pearson, George Mason: The Patriots are a trendy pick for the Top 25 and a lot of that has to do with the versatility of Pearson.
Damier Pitts, Marshall: The Thundering Herd are a real sleeper to gain an NCAA tourney berth out of Conference USA in large part because of Pitts.
Herb Pope, Seton Hall: Pope has come back from multiple life-threatening situations and has a real shot as a senior to put it all together and finally shine.
Terrence Ross, Washington: The Huskies can't be dismissed as a major player for the Pac-12 title, and if they win it, Ross will be a significant reason why.
Robert Sacre, Gonzaga: Sacre has matured into a solid post player, and that progress shows no signs of stopping as the Zags once again compete for the West Coast title.
Mike Scott, Virginia: If the sleeper Cavs mount a run to the NCAA tournament, the oft-injured Scott will be the reason why.
Renardo Sidney, Mississippi State: If Sidney is in shape and plays up to his potential, he has SEC Player of the Year potential and could be the difference between the Bulldogs making the NCAAs or NIT.
Chace Stanback, UNLV: Stanback's suspension to start the season is only one game, so that won't diminish his ability to lead the Rebels in their hunt for a Mountain West title.
Raymond Taylor, Florida Atlantic: FAU quietly won the Sun Belt East Division last season and Mike Jarvis' diminutive point guard was the catalyst behind the regular-season championship.
Hollis Thompson, Georgetown: If the Hoyas are to make the NCAA tournament again and be a pest in the upper half of the Big East, then Thompson needs a breakout season.
Kyle Weems, Missouri State: Doug McDermott is the one everyone is talking about in the Valley, but let's not forget that Weems is the reigning MVC Player of the Year. Too bad for the Bears he's their only returning starter.
Kendall Williams, New Mexico: The sophomore guard was the leading scorer in four postseason NIT games for the Lobos and should only get better with the addition of Australian Hugh Greenwood.
Dewayne Dedmon, USC: Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill firmly believes this JC transfer is an NBA talent who could dominate the post and average a double-double for SC.
Arnett Moultrie, Mississippi State: The former UTEP big man is ready to have a bust-out season for a team that has serious bounce-back potential after a disappointing 2010-11 campaign.
Mike Rosario, Florida: The former Rutgers scoring guard finally has plenty of support around him and will put up numbers for a winner.
Rakim Sanders, Fairfield: The Boston College transfer should flourish after dropping down a level, and he should get coach Sydney Johnson another trip to the NCAA tourney. Johnson is beginning his first year at Fairfield after leading Princeton to the 2011 tourney.
Royce White, Iowa State: White is finally ready to be a star on the college scene after multiple transgressions at Minnesota.
Brandon Wood, Michigan State: The Spartans picked up a rare senior transfer (taking advantage of the graduate transfer rule) from Valparaiso who could be one of the best shooters in the Big Ten.
Tony Woods, Oregon: The embattled Woods arrived from Wake Forest after legal issues and has a chance to really shine as a double-double player for the first time in his career.
Bradley Beal, Florida: Beal has a chance to be a productive player in a frontcourt that has a vacuum after multiple seniors departed.
Gary Bell Jr., Gonzaga: Coach Mark Few has been anticipating Bell's arrival for over a year now. He's expected to step in and deliver right away.
Wayne Blackshear, Louisville: The Cardinals fancy themselves a Big East title contender, and that's partly because they consider Blackshear a star in the making.
Jabari Brown, Oregon: Brown was the star of the Ducks' trip to Italy with his scoring prowess, and expect that to continue in the Pac-12.
Jahii Carson, Arizona State: There is some question right now as to Carson's eligibility, but if he's good to go, the Sun Devils might become relevant in the Pac-12 again.
Brendan NolanThere seems to be little doubt that freshman Anthony Davis will have a major impact for UK.
Erik Copes, George Mason: Copes was bound for George Washington before Karl Hobbs was fired; now he'll be a headline performer for the Patriots and first-year coach Paul Hewitt.
Anthony Davis, Kentucky: Davis has a chance to be the SEC Player of the Year and the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, so expect him to be on the midseason list when freshmen are allowed.
Andre Drummond, Connecticut: He will be an immediate star and help lift the Huskies into the national title chase again. He's more than likely a future top-five pick in the NBA.
Myck Kabongo, Texas: Coach Rick Barnes has had quite a bit of success with big-time freshmen guards, and Kabongo is next in line.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky: Gilchrist will be another star on what will be a headline team throughout the season.
Johnny O'Bryant, LSU: Coach Trent Johnson needs the Tigers to start trending upward again, and he has a shot with the arrival of the big man from Mississippi.
LeBryan Nash, Oklahoma State: OSU is a bit of a mystery team in the Big 12, but the All-American from Dallas could push the Cowboys into contention.
Austin Rivers, Duke: Rivers will have the ball in his hands quite a bit and appears to be the next Duke star in a lengthy list of recognizable names.
Josiah Turner, Arizona: The Wildcats will win the Pac-12 regular-season title if Turner is as good as advertised.
Cody Zeller, Indiana: If coach Tom Crean is going to turn the Hoosiers into a relevant team this season, it will be because of Zeller and his impact in the Big Ten.
• The U.S. World University Games team -- led by Purdue coach Matt Painter (U.S. team head coach) along with Butler coach Brad Stevens and Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin (U.S. assistants) -- continues to lose key players. Xavier's Tu Holloway turned down the invite to stay and play with his XU teammates. Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor is having minor ankle surgery. And now Painter said that UConn forward Alex Oriakhi is also out in order to rest an injury. Stevens said losing Oriakhi will be a big blow since the team that heads to China next month for the competition needs a rebounder like him in the tournament. Painter said Detroit's Ray McCallum Jr. and UConn's Shabazz Napier were added to the tryout list. Pitt's Ashton Gibbs and Syracuse's Scoop Jardine are still on the roster and are certainly favored to make the squad.
• There are still 22 players trying to make the U.S. squad and they'll compete and train in Colorado Springs from Aug. 4-7. The event runs Aug. 13-22 in Shenzhen, China. A number of players could use this international stage as a springboard for their college seasons; these players include Alabama's JaMychal Green, Texas A&M's Khris Middleton, Kentucky's Darius Miller, Northwestern's John Shurna, Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe, Vanderbilt's John Jenkins, Michigan State's Draymond Green, Missouri's Kim English and Marcus Denmon and Notre Dame's Tim Abromaitis.
But perhaps more than any other player, Cincinnati's Yancy Gates needs to make this team and show he can be a force in order for the Bearcats to continue their rise in the Big East. Last season, he was suspended for a game due to team-related issues. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said Gates can come out of this looking like a team player and a stronger player who can change his image with a positive performance in China.
• Painter said fifth-year senior Robbie Hummel is tired of answering questions about his right knee (ACL surgery). And so are the Boilermakers. He said Hummel should be good to go once the season starts. Meanwhile, the Boilermakers are troubled by the foot surgery for John Hart that will keep him out for an extended period. Hart has had trouble with his right foot for quite some time.
• Villanova coach Jay Wright said JayVaughn Pinkston has been cleared by the school to play for the Wildcats this season. Pinkston was not allowed to play last season due to an assault charge. He was expected to have a major impact on last season's team prior to the incident. The Wildcats are prepping for a trip to Amsterdam, where they will play a few national teams. Wright said the Wildcats will be much different than any squad he's coached in recent years, with the team centered more around big men rather than being guard-oriented.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJohn Beilein is looking forward to the two new guards he'll have on campus this season.
• Michigan coach John Beilein said the addition of freshmen guards Trey Burke and Carlton Brundidge should allow Stu Douglass to return to his natural off-guard position. Losing Darius Morris to the NBA draft was a huge blow to the Wolverines, but Tim Hardaway Jr. showed with the U-19 team in Latvia that he can create quite well with the ball in his hands. If the freshmen can be facilitators and Douglass can play off them, the Wolverines may not take a step back. Michigan is in the Maui Invitational in a loaded field, has to travel to upstart Virginia in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, and gets a sleeper Big 12 team at home in Iowa State. The Wolverines are likely going to add a nonconference game at Arkansas that will take place during the Big Ten season.
• While on a recruiting trip in February, North Carolina coach Roy Williams took a side trip to an aircraft carrier in San Diego to see what it would be like in advance of the Carrier Classic on Nov. 11 against Michigan State. The USS Carl Vinson will be the host of the game, but it wasn't the ship that Williams toured. Williams wanted to see how this would work with a game on top of the ship deck. He couldn't get over the narrow passageways through the ship and wondered how his taller players would maneuver through the ship to get to the deck. Well, apparently there will be a lift that will help that occur so that shouldn't be a problem.
• Williams isn't ruling out Leslie McDonald coming back this season from an ACL injury. Williams said McDonald will have surgery on Aug. 3 and made it clear there's no reason to make any declarative statements at this juncture about a return.
• There was no consensus among the coaches in Orlando about whether to add a stipend, how it would be handled and how it could be divided up for all student-athletes. UConn's Jim Calhoun and Louisville's Rick Pitino said they would like to see $75 to $100 a week for the athletes -- roughly $400 a month.
• Not one coach endorsed the NCAA's new draft early-entry withdrawal date of April 10, 2012, after which no player will be allowed to enter the NBA draft. Makes you wonder why this was passed. Every coach who discussed it said it would lead to more poor decisions of players leaving early.
• Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy tossed out this prediction about Vanderbilt: The Commodores are a Final Four contender.
• Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor has gone to the Fred Hill makeover school. Hill, the former Rutgers head coach and current Northwestern assistant, was bald when he was head coach of the Scarlet Knights. Now he's gone with long hair in the back and new glasses. As for Taylor, he got rid of his famed mustache and dark hair. He's gone with something of an auburn or almost light red look. He was standing to the side of our TV set, and I wasn't the only one who had no idea who he was until you could read ODU on his golf shirt.
• Stanford is prepping for a trip to Spain in early September. The Cardinal and coach Johnny Dawkins need to get away to figure out who will stand out for them now that Jeremy Green is gone.
• New Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson squeezed in a team trip to Italy next month, which will be critical for him to get to know his players more and see how Boston College transfer Rakim Sanders meshes with a team that won the MAAC regular-season title last season and is back almost in full.
• The travel some of these coaches put on themselves is a bit ridiculous. Dawkins was in Orlando on Monday, then took off for Phoenix and then Los Angeles before he headed back to Orlando by Thursday. Temple coach Fran Dunphy was in Orlando on Monday and was off to Phoenix before a return to Orlando by the end of the week.
• New Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said he has reviewed his team enough to know that scoring up front will be a challenge. He said he'll likely go with four guards on the court on a consistent basis.
• Northwestern's Bill Carmody clearly wanted to be noticed in showing his school spirit. He had a rather loud pair of purple sweat pants that I'm not sure you could or would want to buy at the campus bookstore. Michigan State's Tom Izzo went with Spartan green, which Carmody pointed out, but the green was certainly more muted than the purple.
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaSydney Johnson surprised many when he left alma mater Princeton to become head coach at Fairfield.
He cried again at a postgame news conference after Princeton lost to Kentucky in the final seconds in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
He said he may get just as emotional in his new position as head coach at Fairfield, now that he has left his alma mater in a stunning move to replace Ed Cooley.
"My emotions, as they relate to coaching, are genuine," said Johnson by phone from his new office in Fairfield, Conn. "One thing you'll be surprised by is the connection I have and will have with our guys at Fairfield whether I wore that jersey or not. I can relate to what the guys are going through; the grind of being a student and a player.
"I don't feel like that since I left my alma mater, that it makes me any less sincere in how much I invest emotionally in coaching," said Johnson, who will turn 37 on April 26. "I don't accept that."
Johnson's move from Princeton to Fairfield has been one of the most surprising of any during the spring coaching carousel, mostly because of Johnson's public display of emotion while leading his alma mater into the postseason. However, a closer examination of the move makes it much more explainable.
Princeton's pay scale for Johnson was estimated at around $200,000. According to sources, Johnson was able to secure more than double his salary at Fairfield and will be paid in the $400,000 range that Cooley was making before he returned to his native Rhode Island to coach Providence.
Princeton athletic director Gary Walters, also an alumnus, didn't want to comment further on Johnson's departure. He was not pleased that Johnson's representatives were sending out feelers about openings at Towson and Bradley prior to the Fairfield opening. Walters has long held firm to the belief that coaching at Princeton is a privilege. Having someone like legendary former coach Pete Carril, who guided the Tigers from 1967 to 1996, is a luxury that won't occur anymore.
John Thompson III, who like Johnson played at Princeton, was the Tigers' head coach for four seasons before taking over at Georgetown, where his father had built a legacy.
"It was extremely difficult for me to leave Princeton," Thompson III said. "People didn't initially believe that since I was going Ivy to the Big East. But Princeton in many ways was, and still is, home for me and leaving that program was extremely difficult for me."
Johnson was a part of Carril's final team that scored an historic upset over defending champion UCLA in the first round of the 1996 NCAA tournament. He was part of Thompson's staff at Georgetown before taking over a Princeton program that was in shambles. He coached the Tigers to six wins in Year 1, 13 in Year 2 (8-6 in the Ivy), a 22-9 record (11-3 in the Ivy) and a CBI semifinal appearance against Saint Louis in Year 3.
In 2011, he matched Harvard game for game; the Tigers shared the regular-season title with the Crimson but earned the Ivy's NCAA bid after winning a one-game playoff. The Tigers finished 25-7 (12-2 in Ivy).
"As a graduate of the class of '88, it was a great four years to watch," Thompson III said of Johnson's Princeton tenure. "World order was restored. We have a long, proud tradition and one of the best basketball programs in the country. Sydney said it best before the playoff game: There is an expectation to win and added pressure to win and it's different sitting in that Princeton locker room. He's leaving the program where it should be at this point."
Walters said he's going through a national head-coaching search but the Princeton alumni in college basketball want Johnson's successor to be one of three Princeton alums: Thompson III assistant Mike Brennan, Bill Carmody assistant Mitch Henderson or Johnson assistant Brian Earl.
"One of the things that we're proud to be associated with is the success of the former players as head coaches," Thompson III said. "Given that opportunity, they've been successful."
Johnson saw things at Fairfield -- such as a higher salary and the ability to cast a wider net in recruiting -- that he didn't see at Princeton, while Ivy League rival Harvard is taking steps in that direction, according to those close to the program.
Johnson wouldn't go into detail about his departure, but said he was impressed after listening to Fairfield's vision.
"Clearly Fairfield is aspiring to be something just as meaningful in terms of educating kids, student-athlete mentoring and aspiring to be something bigger," Johnson said. "There is momentum here. Clearly, Ed put it in place."
Fairfield won the MAAC regular-season title and reached the second round of the NIT, finishing with a 25-8 record. Fairfield hadn't won a conference title since 1996 and had never won one outright.
"Ed and the university helped improve and change the lives of these young men and there are resources here around this program that will help them," Johnson said. "I'm not embarrassed to want to be associated with that."
He sees a chance to develop Fairfield even more.
"I can be emotionally attached to this school and I do believe there's a lot of room to grow behind what Ed Cooley did," Johnson said. "I have nothing negative to say about Princeton. I don't think conference affiliation matters. With all due respect to the Big East and the ACC, just because those teams are in those leagues doesn't make them great basketball programs. Sure, they get a bump. But Butler and VCU have shown that if you pop the hood and look underneath you can see something better. Fairfield looks a little different but it looks good and might not to others. But once you start talking to the recruits, the alumni, you see what this program is about."
Still, the emotion that Johnson felt after the Harvard win and near-miss against Kentucky was real.
"Those are the type of moments in your coaching career that you'll always remember," Johnson said. "Those players were working their entire lives for those moments and didn't know it. It validated everything we did from that first 6-23 season."
Johnson doesn't have to rebuild Fairfield. The Stags are ready to win again next season, and Johnson said he'll be just as emotionally attached in his new venture as he was at Princeton.
The pressure to win two or three games in a conference tournament can be intense for a traditional one-bid league.
But the NIT rule guaranteeing the regular-season winner a spot in its 32-team field has actually taken the pressure off the fear that a conference champ would get frozen out of the postseason.
At least that's the approach Vermont coach Mike Lonergan has taken after the Catamounts, along with Fairfield, became the first two regular-season conference champs in college basketball.
Richard Mackson/US PresswireMike Lonergan and Vermont have taken some pressure off by clinching the America East regular-season title.
"It does take the pressure off,'' said Lonergan. "We're definitely playing well but those [conference] tournaments can be scary even when you're playing well. It's great to know you've got a good spot, at the worst, in the NIT.''
Vermont has won 10 in a row and clinched the America East title Wednesday at Maine with a 13-2 record. After Saturday's BracketBuster game at College of Charleston, the Catamounts have one game left to play in the league -- against Boston University on Feb. 27.
Maine looked like it should be the America East's BracketBuster television representative -- at least I thought it did -- after the Black Bears won at Penn State in December. But since Jan. 29, they have lost five in a row.
Vermont has to go to Hartford for the first two rounds of the America East tournament. If it wins, it will host the final a week later in Burlington, like it did a year ago.
Lonergan is confident that the Catamounts, which played and lost at Connecticut and to BYU in Glens Falls, N.Y., in the Jimmer Fredette homecoming, will get a No. 14 seed in the NCAA tournament. If they were to land a seed like that, then they at least have a chance in the first round.
The problem is that Lonergan can also see the vulnerability of his youthful team which could get knocked off prior to the final. Binghamton is a wild card. So, too, is BU and maybe Maine if the Black Bears can get their act together. And if that happens, at least Vermont has an established postseason home.
Fairfield will feel more heat, though, after winning the MAAC regular-season title. The Stags finally wrestled the MAAC tournament from Albany -- home of Siena -- and will host at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport, Conn.
Siena beat Fairfield in the final seconds last season in Albany, and then won the tournament championship over the Stags in overtime.
Iona coach Tim Cluess said he could see as many as seven teams winning the MAAC tournament -- even in Bridgeport. Look for Iona, Rider, St. Peter's, Canisius, Loyola (Md.) and Siena to come into the tournament believing they can knock off Fairfield.
Fairfield coach Ed Cooley has done a tremendous job resurrecting the Stag program, and winning the regular-season title is quite an accomplishment. Closing the deal by winning the MAAC tournament, regardless of what happens versus Austin Peay on BracketBuster Saturday and the final two conference games against Siena and at Iona, will still be the ultimate judgment on the year. Getting the top seed and hosting, sets up Fairfield for its potential fourth NCAA tournament appearance in school history.
"I hope we win this year,'' Cooley said. "If we win, who knows, maybe we'll be a 13 at best. I'm just trying to win this game. I haven't been to the NCAA in five years [since leaving Boston College as an assistant]. I want to get there.''
Fairfield enters BracketBuster weekend at 21-5 overall and 14-2 in the league (three games ahead of three teams tied for second).
But like Vermont, Fairfield will at least be in the NIT, a safety net that ensures the regular-season champs are protected.
Florida won't feel any effects from it. The Gators will return the money from purchased tickets and continue as if nothing happened. But the sting will last for Fairfield.
The Stags were due a guaranteed sum of $75,000 to $80,000 for playing the game, a standard fee for teams that play a road game against a power-six school without a return.
G Fiume/Getty ImagesIts canceled game versus Florida hurts Ed Cooley's team and program in multiple ways.
Florida has confirmed that because the game wasn't played, it isn't responsible for paying Fairfield. The money that Fairfield was due would have been used in a variety of ways, including helping pay for coach Ed Cooley's salary and for the recruiting budget. The Stags played one other guaranteed game this season (at Penn State), but the exposure wasn't the same. Fairfield was also due to be on ESPNU on Tuesday night against the Gators, but instead lost a rare nationally televised appearance.
As the MAAC favorites, the Stags still have two other nationally televised games on ESPNU -- at Loyola (Md.) on Jan. 14 and against Iona on Feb. 4. The Gators already lost a home to Jacksonville on Dec. 20, so a chance at a potential upset is now gone, as is the possible power-rating points for playing the SEC East preseason favorites.
"We haven't played a very good schedule, [it's] good enough for who we are right now, but to get a strength of schedule game like that, it would have helped our RPI in case you go on a long run,'' Cooley said of his 8-3 Stags (2-0 in the MAAC). "We lost a national spotlight game in recruiting, a chance to sell our university and a chance for people to watch us play that normally wouldn't.''
And then there is the financial hit.
"These are funds that we would use in recruiting that we need for subscription services for opportunities to recruit," Cooley said. "All of this money goes into the program. I'm just pissed off that we didn't get on television, too. We sacrificed with our team early with competition that wasn't as stiff but we got better, and we've won seven in a row. I thought the way we've been playing and practicing that we had a chance. We were going there to win. Whether or not we did, who knows. But we had a lot going for us.''
Cooley said both coaching staffs, especially Florida coach Billy Donovan and assistant Larry Shyatt, did everything they could to help the Stags reach Gainesville in time to play the game.
Cooley said the original plan was for Fairfield to fly to Orlando on a direct flight Monday at 11:10 a.m. from White Plains, N.Y. But that flight was canceled Sunday night during the snow storm. Cooley said the Stags then tried to get out on a charter flight but couldn't get charter service to pick them up.
"We couldn't get anything out of the Northeast. We tried Monday night and even Tuesday, the day of the game,'' Cooley said. "We were trying to fly day of the game and tried to do it from Manchester, N.H., all the way down to Washington, D.C. Everything was sold out. There wasn't one ticket to buy to get to Orlando, Tampa or Jacksonville or Miami.''
Cooley said the Stags looked into a number of possibilities, one of which included Cooley, one assistant, a trainer and nine players making the trip.
And another option was even more desperate. "It came down to seats at one point, and we thought maybe if I fly down with the top six guys,'' Cooley said. "It was some crazy stuff. I was on the phone with Billy and Larry, class guys, they wanted to play the game as much as we did. It was a matter of Mother Nature. This is a big, big loss for our program not playing the game.''
The Gators and Stags were looking into alternative dates, but they couldn't play this week. Florida plays at Xavier on Friday, while Fairfield hosts Army. The schools looked at open dates later in January and then into February but couldn't agree on a slot that wasn't an issue for their respective conferences.
"There was just no way to squeeze it in there,'' Cooley said. "Now we'll have 11 days in between games.''
Fairfield likely has to win the MAAC tournament to get an NCAA tournament bid, but not having the game against Florida will hurt the Stags' overall RPI for seeding in March.
• New Mexico coach Steve Alford said Wednesday that Emmanuel Negedu won't play for the foreseeable future after his defibrillator went off at halftime against The Citadel on Dec. 19. Negedu collapsed while at Tennessee in September 2009. He didn't lose consciousness but the "bad read" of his defibrillator meant he had to be held out of competition while undergoing more tests. Negedu was in Las Vegas last week for New Mexico's games against Colorado and Northern Iowa. He said at the time that he was "under the weather" and was going to have some tests. Alford said that Negedu would go on the trip to Texas Tech (a 61-60 win Wednesday) and Dayton (Saturday). New Mexico cleared Negedu to play, but Indiana -- his first choice after Tennessee -- didn't clear him to play. Alford said everything had been fine with Negedu since he's been at New Mexico. When ESPN.com visited Albuquerque in October, Negedu said he had no issues throughout the summer and early fall. But this latest red flag may mean he won't play again.
"He's a great kid, and we're hoping for the best,'' Alford said. "He's a tremendous kid. He's only a sophomore. We'll wait and see how it plays out. But I told him the best thing is finding this out beforehand. Unfortunately others don't. We'll take care of him. We're glad he's with us.''
He was a big man with exceptional passing reads who had lived up to his high school hype. He was the Big East Rookie of the Year after averaging a dozen points and nearly seven boards a game. He had NBA personnel tantalized by his skill set. And he led Georgetown -- to the NIT.
You can't blame Monroe for the Hoyas' sudden free fall in the middle of their Big East schedule that saw them drop seven of their nine games in January. (Six of the seven were league losses; the other was at Duke.) Monroe was hardly alone, as inexperience reigned over the Hoyas at the worst time.
"I don't know how to explain it," Monroe said of the downward spiral in which the Hoyas went from 11-1 to 13-8 en route to a pedestrian 16-15 finish (7-11 Big East). "We didn't make plays down the stretch when we needed them: a stop, a rebound or execute our offense. We couldn't find a way to do it. There's a big difference this year since we understand what has to be done. We will win more games this year."
James Lang/US PRESSWIREGreg Monroe could've been a high pick in the NBA draft but chose to return to Georgetown.
A year ago, Georgetown cruised into the Old Spice Classic in Orlando and torched rival Maryland by 27 points. The Hoyas then beat Memphis at home by nine in overtime. And then, the kicker, Georgetown opened Big East play in late December with a stunning 11-point win at co-league favorite UConn. All three of those victims went to the NCAA tournament, with UConn a No. 1 seed.
"I thought we had a chance to be special in this league after that game," Monroe said as he recalled the UConn game while at last week's Big East media day in New York. "We had a tough game after that [a 16-point home loss to Pitt]. But it was a special conference last year. This year there is more balance. The league lost a lot of stars. We have a better focus and we know what it takes to win more games."
Monroe could have bolted. He could have run for the easy money as Georgetown floundered for the first time under John Thompson III with a 12th-place finish in the Big East after winning the league in consecutive years with a Final Four berth two seasons ago.
But the Hoyas' win-loss record had nothing to do with Monroe's decision.
"I just had to evaluate myself, and I knew I wasn't ready to make that step," said Monroe, whom an NBA team likely would have selected in the top 10 despite his assessment. Monroe said his skills weren't polished enough. He wasn't physical enough.
"Of course I want to play in the tournament," Monroe said. "But I can't make a mistake leaving too early."
Somehow Thompson wasn't surprised by the refreshing and true analysis.
"He can look in the mirror and be honest with himself," Thompson said. "He likes the collegiate experience. He likes being at Georgetown. There are a lot of kids out there that look for the first opportunity to go. Sometimes it's right, and sometimes it's wrong. They want to jump and get to the league. But he can look in the mirror and be honest with himself that he has to be stronger and improve his offense. There's no rush for him to make that jump."
Now, don't be surprised if he does it after his sophomore season. The 6-foot-11 Monroe should be in contention with Notre Dame's Luke Harangody for Big East Player of the Year if he can live up to his expectations. The Hoyas should be a better fit for making a run at a top-three finish with the experienced junior backcourt of Austin Freeman and Chris Wright, role-playing wings Jason Clark and Nikita Mescheriakov and a deeper frontcourt.
Losing DaJuan Summers (13.6 points per game) early to the NBA draft and senior guard Jessie Sapp (6.5 PPG) is a hit. You can spin their departures all you want, but Summers was still a talent and a potential mismatch. Sapp added a solid, experienced guard. But there was clearly something amiss with last year's group that didn't always mesh. The spring training-like buzz about this group is that it is in a better space.
"The hunger is different," Thompson said. "The energy is different. It's not an excuse, but we did have six players in our rotation last year that were going through it for the first time. That's a reality. It was a bad year to be inexperienced in this conference."
Thompson is banking on the natural growth process of a college team. Through the first two weeks of practice, he is seeing that this squad is no longer running scared at times.
The confidence Thompson gleaned during the offseason was evident by his taking on a more challenging schedule in December. Thompson didn't hesitate to schedule top-15 team Butler in the Jimmy V Classic in New York on Dec. 8 and then fly out to Anaheim to play one of the Pac-10 favorites in Washington at the Wooden Classic. Thompson has said it's a Big East-like week. It is, with more travel. He likely wouldn't do that stretch if he weren't confident this team could make a run within the conference.
Playing the Colonial League's top team in Old Dominion again at home -- a team that has given the Hoyas fits recently -- will be a tough follow-up to that Butler-Washington stretch when the Hoyas return to Washington, D.C., to face the Monarchs on Dec. 19.
"We have the pieces," Monroe said. "We lost two great players in Jessie Sapp and DaJuan Summers, but with me, [junior] Julian Vaughn emerging and the freshmen coming along well, we've got the pieces for us to be versatile."
Thompson said the wide-eyed look of a young team is gone. This squad still doesn't have a senior. But it has a big man who could be one of the best in the country. If he is, the Hoyas should be a factor throughout the season, not just in spots in November and December.
• The MAAC predictions had Siena projected to win the league yet again. The Saints have a real shot to win a third straight first-round NCAA tournament game. The Saints won 27 games last season and return key players Ronald Moore and Edwin Ubiles.
As has been the case recently, Niagara was picked second. Rider, with preseason player of the year Ryan Thompson, was third followed by Fairfield, Loyola, Saint Peter's, Canisius, Manhattan, Iona and Marist.
There was a time earlier this decade when the latter three teams were at the top of this conference. That shows how difficult it is to maintain success at this level when there are coaching changes. The continued excellence in the MAAC at Siena and Niagara can be attributed to the decisions of the coaches and schools to keep Fran McCaffery and Joe Mihalich, respectively. The long-term commitment by both coaches is a direct result in their programs' maintaining a place atop the league.