FAIRFIELD, Conn. – Kevin Degnan – at 6’8” and mostly a post player – had only seven career three-pointers, but there he was on the wing in front of a Fairfield fast break, picking a low pass off his ankles and drilling a three-pointer anyway. As the intimate crowd roared, Degnan gave a clapping Sydney Johnson a high-five on the way back down the court.
Welcome to the new world order that is Fairfield basketball in the last two weeks. And it claimed another victim Friday afternoon, this time Columbia, 82-81 in overtime, in what has to be considered a mild upset even if it were in the friendly confines of Alumni Gym.
If it were up to Johnson, Fairfield (3-3) would play much more in ancient Alumni Gym, where a holiday crowd of 1,886 made their presence known, with Johnson exhorting them on, almost to midcourt on a couple of big Columbia (3-3) possessions at the end of regulation and the extra session. The Stags will play two more times at Alumni this season, including a MAAC game against Saint Peter’s, but there are no current plans to expand that number.
Ooooovertime (Thanks to Grant Mullins) pic.twitter.com/NR6ZouEzR2
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) November 27, 2015
Johnson swears this up-tempo, shoot quickly thing isn’t new for him and that his Princeton teams played similarly, but KenPom begs to differ a little, the highest Princeton ranked in adjusted tempo under him was 300th in his final season, 2010-11 (the Tigers won the Ivy League that year).
It’s extremely early but the Stags are up to 64th nationally in adjusted tempo (after being 313th last season), and ran Columbia into its fastest game against a Division I team (75 possessions) since Kyle Smith’s first year on the Upper West Side in 2011.
Other than the fans, who were treated to an entertaining up-and-down show that featured 70 three-point attempts, the biggest beneficiary seems to senior Marcus Gilbert, who has been the primary target of opposing scouting reports for a couple of seasons, but now looks freer to find space for himself. He scored a career-high 32 in an outrageous 113-74 win (Fairfield’s previous high under Johnson in five seasons was 85) on Tuesday, then did one better Friday by scoring 33.
“Coach is always preaching to us to push the ball, push the ball,” Gilbert said. “Once we do that, we can get up on teams really quick and they don’t know what hit them.”
It should be pointed out that Fairfield has not ranked above 283rd in offensive efficiency in the last three seasons, either, and with some pressure on Johnson to produce (you may remember Fairfield retooled the rest of its coaching staff in the offseason) and a very athletic team, the new world order in Fairfield may mean that the Stags can improve dramatically in their 9-31 MAAC record over the last two seasons.
“It was almost like a death walk last season,” Johnson said. “Now we’re going and going and going. I think we had really good players and it gives them an opportunity to make some open-court plays. All that starts with defense, though. Then we can get stops and push the ball. In transition, people are getting open looks and that helps our shooters.”
Of course, just playing fast isn’t everything. Although they beat what could potentially be a very good Columbia team, the Lions were incensed after the game on a call with 10 seconds left that allowed Tyler Nelson to make two game-winning free throws (Maodo Lo missed his 17th three-pointer of the contest as time expired).
And the new style may face the ultimate test on Tuesday in Fairfield’s MAAC opener, which just so happens to be in New Rochelle against Iona, who has been in the top 20 nationally in tempo four of the last five seasons.
What else did we learn at historic Alumni Gym on Friday afternoon?
- Maybe Fairfield’s personnel does fit
Fairfield played without starting point guard Jerome Segura and really played without a point guard period for most of the contest, with backup Jerry Johnson getting only 12 minutes. Playing the point was Tyler Nelson, primarily a shooter prior to this season, but (although he turned it over four times) finished with five assists and attempted to get to the basket, even if he finished 3-16 from the field.
Gilbert and his length (6’8”) creates matchup nightmares at the 2 spot (Nelson does a little as a 6’3” point as well). The pair also makes Fairfield’s zone extremely long, it looks like the Stags will go exclusively zone for the near future, which made Columbia launch threes (15-41) all day long, although they did concede 15 offensive rebounds. Matija Milin can shoot a little and had 11 rebounds for Fairfield, and gives them more size at 6’9”. Johnson generally played one non-shooter, the most impressive being freshman Jonathan Kasibabu (6’8”), who is also athletic, but Fairfield played some lineups with five shooters by playing Scott King (6’9”) or Degnan at the 5 spot.
Again, the Stags have to actually make those shots, but they certainly have in the last couple of games. But they’re having a good time right now.
“It looks like we’re having fun, but just ask any one of my guys, that’s how we are every day in the gym,” Johnson said. “It’s not a show for anyone, it’s literally how we are every day in the gym. And they’ve got some good stories on me, too, and how crazy I am. It’s because we love being together.”
Said Gilbert: “We work hard in the gym all day, every day. You’re going to miss shots, you’re going to make shots, you just have to keep confident and keep shooting.”
2) Columbia still has some work to do
It seems counterintuitive, but teams that like to shoot plenty of threes like Columbia sometimes struggle against zones because they don’t really try to get inside. When the zone extends like Fairfield’s did, it becomes tougher. Still, they did make 15-41 from outside and scored 1.08 points per possession, the Lions – like they did against Northwestern – couldn’t make a big play down the stretch. Smith also got very little out of his bench, which could be a problem going forward as well.
“We expected them to play zone, so that didn’t surprise us,” Smith said. “They have some good young players. They’re big and their defensive numbers are good even if they’re running a bit more. They did a good job of finding our shooters. We’d better find a way to come up on the other side of games like this if we’re going to be good.”
3) Digging deep for Steve Smith
It’s been a tough road for Fairfield junior Steve Smith, who started off as a key player as a freshman, but whose minutes slowly dwindled, even going through a short stretch last year where he left the team. This season, he had played only three minutes all season (at the end of the UMES rout), but Johnson needed him Friday in the first half and Smith delivered, hitting a pair of three-pointers.
When Johnson took Smith out (he ended up playing 22 minutes total), he was met with a big hug from Johnson who followed him all the way down the bench. Every team has someone like Smith and it was nice to see him get a moment like that, and if he keeps making shots, who knows going forward?
Bonus) Fairfield-Iona Tuesday night
Disaster for Fairfield or a chance to insert themselves as another improbable contender into the MAAC race?
“They’re going to challenge us. They get up and down the court. It’s going to be fun,” Johnson said.
Fairfield 82, Columbia 81 (OT). Maodo Lo's three at the buzzer falls off. Big win for Stags., pic.twitter.com/oaYFQZCPTr
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) November 28, 2015