Three Thoughts: Loyola (MD) 61, Fairfield 59 (OT)

At some point – as Dennis Green so emphatically pointed out years ago – you are what you are, and with the 2014 portion of Fairfield 2014-15 campaign now complete, we’re pretty sure the Stags are a solid defensive team with pretty good size, but one that is going to struggle offensively, especially when leading scorer Marcus Gilbert is not as his best.

That combination is likely going to result in a lot of low-scoring, close games in MAAC play, and Fairfield was already able to win its first two conference games that way. Alas, they’ve now lost all three non-conference games since after a particularly physical (some might call it unattractive) 61-59 overtime loss (Fairfield’s fourth OT game this season already) to struggling Loyola (MD).

It was a big win for the Greyhounds (4-7) and G.G. Smith, who open Patriot Leage play Wednesday at Navy. They, too, are offensively challenged, but got a big night out of junior Tyler Hubbard, who finished with 21 points on 4-for-8 shooting from behind the arc (all of Loyola’s attempts from out there).

Smith seems to have come to terms with his team’s identity a little more than Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson. Both teams will likely be difficult to play in their respective conferences, but we’ll see how much of a limitation the lack of offense turns out to be.

Here are my thoughts from the final game of the Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival, an old MAAC rivalry renewed (including the 2012 MAAC final which saw Jimmy Patsos go to the NCAA Tournament for the first time, which also showcased two offensively-challenged squads and finished 48-44):

1. Fairfield’s size will give people problems – The Stags started K.J. Rose (6’1”) and Tyler Nelson (6’3”) at guard, and were able to post up (especially Rose) smaller Loyola guards in a matchup dilemma and draw fouls. Gilbert is a long 6’6”, while Mike Kirkland (6’7”) and Amadou Sidibe comprise a big frontcourt, at least by MAAC standards. Consistency, though, continues to haunt Fairfield. Sidibe came up big in his homecoming of sorts (Cardinal Hayes in the Bronx) with 13 points and 13 rebounds, but Kirkland didn’t make a field goal and grabbed just four rebounds, Nelson couldn’t get open and played just 18 minutes, while Gilbert was 5-of-18 from the field, and 1-of-9 from behind the arc (where he’s now shooting just 33.3% this season). Steve Johnston tried to step up with a trio of three-pointers, but who knows next time out?

“He (Sidibe) was an important recruit for us,” Johnson said. “Coming from the Bronx to Fairfield, we want people from the city to know we’ve got good spots for kids. He struggled a little bit last year with injuries, but he’s the heart and soul of our program along with Steve Johnston.”

“Three-point shooting, it’s really odd, we’re getting great looks,” Johnson later added. “Last two out of three games we’ve struggled, though. I can’t tell you about the overtime, I have no idea what the future holds, but I want our team to compete this way every time we take the floor.”

2. Loyola is going to have to make things ugly – The Greyhounds came in 305th in offensive efficiency, and a putrid 346th in eFG%, although that should improve a bit, even with a fairly pedestrian offensive performance like Sunday’s. Their leading scorer – Eric Laster- didn’t even start (although Hubbard passed him with 21 in this one). Loyola averages just over 55 points per game, but – in a fairly balanced Patriot League – if you let them hang around for too long, they stand to be a hungry bunch, as Fairfield found out the hard way Sunday.

“We’re just offensively challenged,” Smith said. “Last year, we had Dylan Cormier and we’ve had guys in the past that can drop 25 or 30 points. This year, we just don’t have that kind of guy. So we have to do a really good job of running our offense: really screen, make that extra pass, when the shot goes up, we have to hit the offensive glass, too.”

3. Sydney Johnson still believes in his team – I mean, why not? They stand atop the MAAC at 2-0 despite a 4-8 overall record after going just 6-25 last season. All coaches say they believe in their group, but Johnson has said it repeatedly and honestly to anyone that will listen. And even though some of their offensive numbers are cringe-worthy and (other than perhaps Marcus Gilbert) who knows what players he can really count to step up from night to night, who are we to doubt him with the way things have gone so far this season?

I think this group has it in them,” Johnson said. “We’re night and day from what we were last year. We have talent and cohesion and we have to make sure that shows up in the key moments.”

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