BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – The box score will tell you Fairfield won their season opener by 13 points over Sacred Heart, 67-54 on Saturday. The box score will also tell you they did that despite 26 turnovers. But what the numbers won’t tell you is that the Stags have a lot of newness about them but will be a team worth watching this season and one the coaching staff is going to enjoy all the way around.
Last season’s team had an interesting personnel dynamic to it with the mix of seniors and freshmen. This season’s team is simply young, as they have just one senior and nine freshmen and sophomores. The interesting dynamic is that six players were in uniform last season and six weren’t. But that also means there’s a lot of opportunity to mold this group into something, and it’s clear that they’re already at work with that on one end of the floor.
While many people know about the Princeton offense and surely think of that with head coach Sydney Johnson, there’s a lot more to it. He’s big on defense, and has been with this team. Last year’s team won games with defense as they weren’t a great scoring team. With top scorer and leader Derek Needham gone, this year’s team will need to be even better at that end, at least initially before the young players grow.
Naturally, Maurice Barrow will have to be a leader, and mainly by example. The only senior on the team has a mature body and plays bigger, and he’s been making an impact since his freshman year. He showed it at times on Saturday night, including one play when he chased down a loose ball he couldn’t get, tipped it out to a teammate who then got a fast break layup. That was in addition to his team-high 14 points and nine rebounds.
“We’ve had fix or six bad practices since we started in September,” said Johnson. “(Barrow) has had none of them.”
After Barrow, however, it’s sophomores, including team captain Amadou Sidibe, who will lead. The only juniors are walk-on Steve Johnston and Pittsburgh transfer Malcolm Gilbert, who isn’t really that type of player. Alongside Barrow, three sophomores, including transfer Sean Grennan, and a freshman started.
Speaking of Gilbert, he’s never really been an offensive player. He didn’t average in double figures in high school and was a bit player at Pittsburgh. His role has always been that of a presence defensively, and he was certainly that on Saturday as had blocked eight shots and had 11 rebounds. There aren’t many seven-footers in the MAAC, so he can be a difference-maker to begin with. Add offense and he means that much more, and the Stags intend to do that. While he only scored five points, he showed good fundamentals, so he could become a factor at that end, and they intend to use him as an offensive player.
“He can play,” Johnson said of Gilbert. “We were really happy when we got him and know he’s pretty good.”
Gilbert’s younger brother, Marcus, had 13 points and nine rebounds, and figures to play a key role on this team. He could develop into their top threat from the wing.
The one freshman starter, K.J. Rose, had the kind of mixed bag a lot of freshmen have in their debut. He had nine points but also nine turnovers, but looks like he can make an impact as he’s a gifted athlete. Three classmates, guards Doug Chappell and Lincoln Davis along with forward Steve Smith, also played and will have a role. Davis is very athletic but still has to come along, while Chappell had the best night of the three.
The turnovers are a problem, and Johnson knows they can’t win with that every night. But winning the game convincingly shows this team can overcome in-game adversity and is a sign they can do other things to win. It’s also a sign they can improve on it when they next take the court.
“Today, we got away with it in terms of turning it over that much,” said Johnson. “I don’t think you can turn the ball over 26 times and win by 13 points.”
What Saturday showed as much as anything is the potential this team will have. They will have growing pains, like any young group. They’re certainly not going to go undefeated, and winning the MAAC will be very tough with veteran teams like Manhattan (who won at La Salle earlier in the day), Iona and Canisius among them. But they could be a wild card, and come February might win a game or two they probably shouldn’t.