After winning 41 games in his first two seasons at Fairfield, the last two seasons have been a struggle, winning just seven games in each of the last two seasons.
Head coach Sydney Johnson knew how difficult the task would be in his third and fourth seasons, graduating a group that in his first two seasons produced such stars as Derek Needham, who finished his career third on the all-time scoring list. For a coach who went to the NCAA tournament at Princeton prior to joining Fairfield and has hardly struggled in back to back seasons as a player or coach, he has entered new territory.
“Losing is miserable at any juncture in your life if you’re a competitive person like I am and I’ve always been and I’ve won a at lot of places, so I view myself as a winner, so losing at any point is going to be the worst,” Johnson said. “We feel like, with the opportunity that we’re given now, with some the recruiting that we’ve done and that’s going on, that we have a chance to come back up and be the program that we expect to be here at Fairfield.”
The Stags return their top six scorers, with junior Marcus Gilbert (16.4 ppg) and freshman Tyler Nelson (10.2 ppg) being the only two who eclipsed double-digits on the season. Those two have been bright spots while the team has tallied back to back seasons with over 20 losses, but Johnson points to them and returning leading rebounder Amadou Sidibe (6.8 rpg) as the group they would like to build around for next season.
“We just want to have more guys like them, so you have a critical mass of kids that play the game the right way and play for each other,” Johnson said. “I think it’s the way to look forward is, look we’ve done some good things here, let’s do more of them with more student athletes like those guys.”
Johnson has been hitting the recruiting trail hard, recently adding a verbal commitment from 6’4″ guard Curtis Cobb, who according to the new recruiting forecast at KenPom is one of the top 160 recruits in the country. Johnson cannot officially discuss commitments made until they officially sign, which could be as soon as April 15, but said that their recruiting right now is going “pretty well.”
Fairfield will have to replenish the roster, but also Johnson will have to add to his coaching staff. After the season ended, Johnson let go of associate head coach Tony Newsome and assistant coach Martin Bahar, and about a week later special assistant Bill Carmody took the head coaching job at Holy Cross. Johnson said that he considers Newsome and Bahar to be “great friends” and that they are pursuing other coaching jobs.
While Carmody might be gone for Worcester, Johnson said he valued the advice he received in his short time at Fairfield from one of his former head coaches at Princeton.
“He gave great input in terms of certain offensive, defensive schemes, certain personnel and it’s stuff that I’m going to hold on to moving forward,” Johnson said. “He also gave me great input on the things that we’re doing really well, a fair amount of stuff, ‘stick with it Sydney and just keep coaching that and coaching harder and these guys got to get it’.”
“It was really exciting to get the feedback, I think was constructive in terms of changes, but it was also exciting to hear from someone that I respect about the amount of stuff that we were doing right and getting right. It’s just about a matter of being able to get our guys to do it at a high level.”
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.