FAIRFIELD, Conn. – We can debate the relative merits of the CIT and whether it belongs in the current college basketball landscape, but the fact is that Fairfield and New Hampshire had 2015-16 campaigns that deserved some kind of recognition, even though neither could get past their respective conference semifinals.
For the host Stags, it was a 12-win increase not only over last season, but the last two campaigns, and probably served to help save Sydney Johnson’s job as their new up tempo style got them 12 MAAC wins. For the Wildcats, they were chasing a school record 20th win after getting 19 a year ago at one of the most stubborn Division I campuses to win. Like Johnson, Bill Herrion was probably heading toward a pink slip last season before the fairly astounding turnaround.
Nationally, neither team made huge news this season, Fairfield still has a little way to go to get to the Ionas and Monmouths in the current MAAC landscape, while New Hampshire is still chasing Stony Brook and Albany.
But, if you haven’t noticed, they are getting closer. Fairfield will struggle to replace Marcus Gilbert, who had a remarkable – if underappreciated – career with the Stags, but they have a lot more young talent coming through then they did a couple of years ago, and if they make as much progress as they did this season, they’ll be right in the MAAC hunt next season.
— Jon Berchem (@jonberchem) March 17, 2016
“We had some tough times when he was a sophomore and junior,” Johnson said. “I love for all our seniors that they could go out this way. In last June or July, no one would have put money on us having this many wins. The guys feel good about themselves despite what happened tonight, and they should.”
Meanwhile, New Hampshire – as it showed Wednesday night by racing out to a big lead and holding on for a 77-62 win – might be even closer. With Stony Brook and Albany graduating plenty and the Wildcats losing only Ronnel Jordan, it’s not a massive stretch to think that the Wildcats, who have really never gotten near the top of America East in their history, may be projected to be there in 2016-17.
— UNH Men’s Basketball (@UNHMBB) March 17, 2016
“We have to learn how to take the next step. We’ve lost back-to-back years in our conference semifinals,” Herrion said. “We have to figure out how to get past that and hopefully this will be a positive step. And they’re good. We were very concerned coming into this game with their offensive firepower and their ability to shoot the three and we did a very good job stopping them.”
For now, the Wildcats can celebrate a school-record 20th victory and a berth in the second round of the CIT, which – like the rest of their season – won’t get a heck of a lot of publicity. But it beats sitting around on the couch doing nothing.
“We wanted to win tonight just as bad as them,” Johnson said. “There were tears from myself and a lot of guys because we care a great deal and we put a lot into the season. It’s a tough loss, but it’s not a loss that defines our season. We had a whole lot of joy, a whole lot of winning, and a whole lot of resiliency.”
What else did we learn Wednesday in front of a decent crowd of 1,145 at Alumni Hall?:
1) New Hampshire really wasn’t that far off this year
The Wildcats (20-12) were helped by coming out on fire, making eight of their first 11 three-pointers, which got them as much as a 21-point first-half lead as Fairfield (19-14) was ice cold (missing 18 of their first 20 three-pointers). But this is a very good road win against a team that had beaten the likes of Iona, Bucknell, and Columbia, none of which were flukes.
New Hampshire, led by Iba Camara (who had zero points, but 11 rebounds Wednesday), finished the season as the top defensive rebounding team in the nation. Jaleen Smith (22 pts.) and Tanner Leissner (15 pts., 8 rebs.) have the potential to be first-team All-America East picks next season (and deservedly so), and if they can shoot the ball (their biggest weakness) like they did against Fairfield (Daniel Dion helped with 15 points on 5-7 three-point shooting), they might be a favorite, let alone a contender.
“When you make shots, your offense looks terrific,” Herrion said. “We made nine threes in the first half. But there were good contributions all over, and this is a good solid win for us.”
2) Cold-shooting Stags
Shooting just 4-29 from three will obviously kill just about any gameplan thrown out there, but Fairfield showed a bit of its inexperience Wednesday, which Sydney Johnson will have to figure out before next season. But, as he will be the first to tell you, the potential is there. Jonathan Kasibabu threw down a massive dunk, but finished with just 4 points and 7 rebounds with foul trouble. Curtis Cobb, still coming back from an ankle injury, was 0-7 from the field. Tyler Nelson scored 20 points and had only one turnover (Fairfield had only six turnovers, but just five assists as well on Wednesday), but Johnson still was on him for some defensive lapses. You add names like Jerome Segura, Matija Milin, and Jerry Johnson, Jr. and there is a ton of potential there if the Stags can’t find a way to harness it without Gilbert and a strong senior leadership class that will graduate to help them.
“We were cold and they were hot,” Johnson said. “I think the two together really put us in a hole and we were really playing catch-up. We always believed we could make a run and get back into it, but credit them for sticking with their stuff and finishing it out like an experienced team.”
2/…for believing in our players & coaches and supporting us through this INCREDIBLE turnaround (4th best in the country). This was fun!!!
— Sydney Johnson (@CoachJStags) March 17, 2016
3) Championships are good
Even Herrion admitted he wasn’t really thinking about winning a title, but after winning the first one and being two games away from a national television appearance (CBS Sports) in the semifinals, that didn’t sound all that impossible.
New Hampshire won’t host, and as of Thursday morning, was still looking for a destination to play its second round game (NJIT will host a game, but both Boston University and New Hampshire will be on the road and there are no other remotely local teams left in the CIT).
But, as was alluded to before, 20 wins for a University of New Hampshire basketball team is nothing to sneeze at.
“We won 19 last year and we had won 19 this year before tonight. We’re a program that’s never played in postseason tournaments until a year ago in the CIT,” Herrion said. “We talked about going into the tournament, let’s try to go win a game and get to 20. It’s pretty special, and we won our first postseason tournament game. I’m proud of the kids. We’re getting good, and we’re trying to use this tournament as a stepping stone, too. We only have one senior. Our ultimate goal is to get this thing to the NCAA Tournament at some point and we can use this experience to get some confidence to take the next step.”