BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – Feeling sorry for Division I head basketball coaches can be a bit overrated, they are fairly well compensated, and although most have worked extremely hard to get near the top of their chosen profession (and now hold a position that thousands of other coaches would love to hold), they are at the end of the day dealing with a game on a daily basis.
(And, yes, I understand the pressures involved, that losing too many of those basketball games could find you unemployed eventually, but still).
Mike Maker endured a difficult, injury-plagued first season at Marist that finished 7-25, but the offseason was much worse as Maker’s son was born prematurely and died just a month later.
That obviously dwarfs anything that happens on a basketball court, but things were looking up for the Red Foxes heading into 2015-16. They won at Draddy Gym in their second MAAC game in December and followed it up with non-conference wins over Army and Brown (and nearly took down Atlantic Sun leader Jacksonville on the road).
But the return to MAAC play did not go well: 10 straight losses and 12 of 13 (the lone bright spot being an upset win over Siena in Poughkeepsie). Then on a snowy night Monday came the word that Khallid Hart, who has been the MAAC’s leading scorer for most of the season, wouldn’t play due to a knee injury suffered against Manhattan 48 hours prior.
However, Maker’s team did not wilt. Without their star, they became looser, attacking the basket at will, leading by five at the half and having a grand old time just after the break, with Hart helping to lead the Monmouth-like bench antics. The Red Foxes led 51-38 with 10:45 left when the party came to a crashing halt in a barrage of Fairfield three-pointers.
Marist 51-38, 10:44 left. The Red Foxes’ bench is having a blast. Actually, check that, the Red Foxes are having a blast.
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) February 16, 2016
Marist still clung to a 66-61 edge with 3:40 left after a big Kentrall Brooks dunk, but senior Marcus Gilbert decided he’d had enough, scoring seven straight points, and when freshman Jerry Johnson – who had a massive day with a career-high 25 points off the bench – hit another three with 1:27 left, Fairfield had its first lead since the early stages of the game and went on to hand Marist its 13th loss in 14 MAAC games, 76-73, before a sparse crowd at Webster Bank Arena.
— Fairfield Basketball (@StagsMensBball) February 16, 2016
Maker, understandably, was pretty crushed afterward, but still happy that his team competed the way they did.
“I’ve never been prouder of our team,” Maker said. “We’ve been through an awful lot, and I thought we played very, very well and deserved to win.”
It’s obviously a long-term project for Maker and Marist, who last had a winning record in the MAAC back in 2007-08. But it doesn’t make losses like this any easier to take.
What else did we learn in Bridgeport?:
- Still a big win for Fairfield
The Stags face three of their final four games on the road and are only a KenPom favorite in one (at Niagara), so their hopes of getting a first-round bye in Albany may have been virtually gone (although Saint Peter’s has a very difficult schedule, too, which includes a season-finale with the Stags).
Johnson was coming off a night against Quinnipiac where he played just 12 minutes (even in a double overtime game) and had scored just 2 points in 8 minutes in the first meeting with Marist. But without his 7-9 shooting from behind the arc, the Stags (25-11, 9-7) lose this game.
“We knew we couldn’t lose to Marist,” Johnson said. “We needed this game to finish in the top five and get that bye (in the MAAC Tournament). The guys never quit and we made plays down the stretch to win the game.”
— Fairfield Basketball (@StagsMensBball) February 16, 2016
2) Defense the issue for both teams
For Marist (5-20, 2-14), the numbers tell the story, the Red Foxes have not held a single MAAC team this season below 1.00 points per possession in 16 games. Zero.
Not coincidentally, it looked like it was going to happen Monday, but Fairfield finished at 1.04 ppp (73 possessions) with its late surge. Kentrall Brooks has gotten more minutes at center of late and was key in what Marist did Monday. In the end, the Stags shot 9-13 from behind the arc in the second half to pull the game out, but going forward, Maker and the Red Foxes will have to figure out a way to keep other teams from scoring so easily like they did Monday.
The Stags obviously like to push the ball now, but it does open up some holes in the middle at the other end when they extend. Fairfield is ninth in the MAAC in defensive efficiency (1.048 ppp adjusted), and although way ahead of the other two (Canisius and Marist), would love to improve on that number as the season closes.
“We’ve won a lot of games where we’ve been down in the second half, so it shows how much we trusted each other,” Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson said. “Marist is extremely well-coached and they were missing Khallid (Hart). You never want to take an opponent lightly. I just thought we were on our heels, and they played really, really hard. We have a lot to play for, and we gutted it out in the second half.”
3) The race for fifth
KenPom’s projections put Fairfield and Saint Peter’s tied for fourth at 11-9 and Manhattan sixth at 10-10, which the Stags and Peacocks would sign up for, but also probably Monmouth, who would then avoid Manhattan in the semifinals. Projections are projections, of course, Saint Peter’s still has Manhattan TWICE (thanks to a leaky Yanitelli Center roof) and obviously Fairfield, so fourth, fifth, and sixth are up for grabs.
Rider is still mathematically alive for a top five spot, but it has a tough road home as well, and that loss to Monmouth last Friday probably ended all hope.
“We have some big things in mind and we want this to be a special year, and we needed this game,” Johnson said.