Probably the best thing to happen to Fairfield in their win over Quinnipiac, which was almost two weeks ago, was the fact that Marcus Gilbert was the team’s third leading scorer.
In that game, senior Steve Johnston led the way with 14 points off the bench and junior Mike Kirkland scored 11 — the junior college forward’s second straight double-digit game.
“I just think he’s that much more aware how good the competition is,” Stags head coach Sydney Johnson said of Kirkland’s adjustments in the season. “I think he is comfortable now with his teammates now in games, where he was very comfortable with them in practices throughout the summer and fall, but there’s a different element in games. He’s a big part of the core of us being competitive over these next couple of years.”
Another player the Stags need to get going in the rebounding category is junior Amadou Sidibe, who is starting to round into form after battling through tendonitis during his sophomore season.
“I think as he gets a little bit more comfortable with the guys he’s playing with I think he’ll finish a bit better, but I’ve been pleased,” Johnson said. “This is the Amadou that we need and we feel like we’re going to get some double-doubles out of him as we move deeper into the season.”
Johnson admits that at times he didn’t recognize the player Sidibe became last season, but that has quickly changed. The 6’8″ junior has pulled down 7.7 rpg this season and has thrived in getting to the free throw line. His free throw rate (FTA/FGA) is 81.8, so when he pulls down a rebound there is a good chance it is going back up on the offensive end and a whistle is being blown.
“If he finishes a couple more put-backs at the rim, if he makes a few more free throws – those are two things that he can control where his scoring will come up a few points,” Johnson said. “Amadou, he kind of creates his own offense most primarily off of put-backs and free throws. He’ll be hopefully another weapon offensively that people have to worry about. We already know defensively he’s a very good weapon that people have to worry about.”
The Stags have had different players come off the bench and have an impact at different times during the young season. Freshman Tyler Nelson started in his fourth career game and scored 24 points, three more than he made in the previous first three games when he came off the bench. Senior Steve Johnston has scored 29 points in the team’s past two games after scoring 17 total points in the first seven contests. Sophomore point guard K.J. Rose has shown flashes at times not only as a scorer, but also as a distributor and rebounder.
Johnson, the fourth-year head coach of the Stags, said that he felt this group would have players who step up at various times to fill the void on offense.
“Different guys made different plays as we practiced through the summer and the fall,” Johnson said. “We’re not saying we’re running through the league undefeated, but we’re saying look with this much talent and these guys having the type of chemistry, if we’re able to stay healthy and keep improving we’re just a hundred percent going to be different than last year.”
One thing that has returned this season is Fairfield’s strong defense. This season they have allowed 0.97 points per possession, which ranks just outside the top 100 in the country. The tough minded defensive team is what Johnson would like to hone in on as their identity as they hit conference play.
“I think our identity is being tough defensively. No matter how that looks: Whether it’s man. Whether it’s zone. Whether it’s press. Just being tough defensively. But one thing that I want to do is try to get this team to the point where we can find ways to win and do it in different ways because there are so many different styles in our league,” Johnson said. “Teams in our league will challenge us in different styles and if we’re comfortable playing against man, playing against zone, playing against up and down, playing against trapping all the time; if we’re comfortable in these different ways I think we can show some consistency through the league and that would pay off in February and in March.”
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2014-15 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He 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.