Fairfield Stags Solidifying Core for Next Season

The Stags were the 31st youngest team in all of college basketball this season and, at plenty of times, their inexperience showed.

One thing head coach Sydney Johnson knew at the start of this season was that his young players were going to play, and in that process they were going to be exposed.

“The youth of our team didn’t allow anyone to hide,” Johnson said noting that the Stags lose graduate leading scorer Mo Barrow, who led the team with 14 points per game coming off the bench.

Sydney Johnson (center) believes his youth will turn into experience for next season’s run in MAAC play. (photo courtesy: Stockton photo)

Most nights the Stags started players who were freshmen and sophomores, and they struggled to keep pace with the upper echelon of the conference. Despite going through a 4-16 season over MAAC play, head coach Sydney Johnson said he feels he has the makings of the core he would like to see make the Stags’ next push for a MAAC championship.

Johnson is optimistic that K.J. Rose, who solidified the point guard spot throughout the year, showed the ability to be a capable guard in his offense going forward. Rose converted assists on 26.7% of his team’s baskets, leading the team with 112 assists. Next season Johnson said he expects Rose and incoming freshman Jerome Segura to be the key contributors at the point guard spot.

Sophomore Marcus Gilbert has proven to be a weapon that Fairfield can build around for the next two seasons. (photo courtesy: Stockton Photo)

Sophomore Marcus Gilbert is the team’s leading returning scorer, having scored 13.9 points per game, second to Barrow. The younger Gilbert started all but one game this past season and became the go-to option for the Stags on the offensive end to create as well as hurt teams with his team-high 79 three-pointers made. However, his older brother and Pitt transfer Malcolm Gilbert struggled to find his foothold in the rotation after essentially three seasons where he saw little game action.

“The honest answer is yes I expected more from Malcolm Gilbert 100%, but when we got him out there, when we got him in the game situations, when we were scrimmaging in practice I realized that he had more rust on him than I expected or acknowledged,” Johnson said of Malcolm scored just 2.5 points per game, but led the team with 36 blocks in limited minutes.

During his first year as captain, Johnson said he did not expect sophomore Amadou Sidibe to struggle as he did until learning that he had been fighting tendinitis since the start of the season. After he and the coaching staff saw how limited Sidibe was early in the year, the sophomore acknowledged how hurt he was towards the middle of the season.

“I just think he let his guard down, which is good, I think we have a good relationship and he’s a great kid,” Johnson said. “When he acknowledged that he was still dealing with it and he was dealing with the tendonitis, he took more measures to take care of himself, then he started to play better.”

“He let his guard down, he trusted the support we have around him and in the second half of the season he was back to the kid we saw as a freshman. I was really really encouraged by his second half of the season, I just felt like it was more who we saw as a freshman and now he’s going to rest, he’s going to stretch and he’s going to do all those things to make sure that he’s really good as a junior and senior.”

The final month of the season might not have shown as many results in the win column that the Stags wanted to have, but their statistical profile improved. They scored better than a point per possession in four of their final nine games, a feat they had accomplished just three times in the prior 23 games.

“I know we didn’t finish where we wanted to be overall, but we have some weapons here,” Johnson said. “I think really staying healthy, adding an impact guy here or there, and then allowing this core group to continue to progress, they showed in those last nine games we’re going to be much better in 14-15. Our youth turned into experience and we remained competitive, especially in those last nine games offensively and defensively.”

Rose, Sidibe as well as both Gilbert brothers appear to be the key core moving forward for Fairfield, but Johnson said he is looking to bring in an instant contributor to bolster their chances for 2015. Whether that be from the junior college ranks or possibly a fifth-year transfer remains to be seen as the April recruiting period opens up.

Ryan Restivo covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.

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