The question at the beginning of the night was “who would step up?” A query present in each team’s prospectus, for different reasons. Fairfield searching for a replacement for last year’s leading scorer Marcus Gilbert following his graduation, Sacred Heart reeling from the transfer of star Cane Broome to Cincinnati this offseason.
For Fairfield, the answer was evident within the first four minutes of Friday’s contest against their county rival. Curtis Cobb accounted for the Stags’ first 16 points, and finished the game with a career high 26. The sophomore averaged 10.8 ppg last season and was named to the MAAC All-Rookie team, but became the first player to officially throw his hat in the ring as Gilbert’s replacement.
“I’m one of those guys that coaches look toward to fill that role,” Cobb said after the game. “Marcus was a huge part of our team, but collectively our younger guys have really helped pick up pretty much where Tyler [Nelson] left off last year, just carry Marcus’ load that he left off.”
All told, five Stags finished with double figures in the opening night 85-63 rout of Sacred Heart. The win extended Fairfield’s dominance of its local neighbor to a 7-0 mark. Here are three thoughts from Bridgeport:
1.) Fairfield won’t miss Marcus Gilbert. Yes, Gilbert ended his career among the all-time greats at Fairfield, but the Stags showed Friday night they had enough options to score at will. The “Runnin’ Stags” certainly got off on the right foot, scoring at a clip of 1.11 points per possession.
Gilbert ended his four years with 1,661 career points, among the top five in school history, but there is a new wave of Stags ready to follow in his path, led by junior Tyler Nelson.
Nelson, a preseason second team all-MAAC selection, averaged 16.0 ppg last season, and contributed 12 on opening night. The prolific shooter now stands at 848 career points, with plenty of time to catch up to Gilbert.
Fairfield’s freshman class ended last season as the top such scoring group in the MAAC. Cobb, along with Jerry Johnson Jr., Matija Milin, and Jonathan Kasibabu combined to average 32.2 points per game last season. That mark was four points better than the next best freshman class at Marist. All but Kasibabu ended Friday’s game in double figures.
“I think on some level they’re ready to make the jump to the next level,” head coach Sydney Johnson said of his sophomore class, even as Cobb missed much of the second half with foul trouble. “I was very happy with them because we had to play through it. If we just try to replace Marcus with one guy, and say that guy is Curtis and he’s out, then we’re in panic mode. That didn’t kick in. We did it as a team, and that’s important.”
2.) Sacred Heart will miss Cane Broome. Broome was without a doubt one of the NEC’s best players last season, and his transfer to Cincinnati has left a visible void. The Pioneers lost two thirds of their scoring from last year’s squad, and the loss of a Broome is a big reason why.
“Giving up 85, that’s a hard number to win with,” head coach Anthony Latina said. “There’s not many games this year we’re going to win when we give up 85. Now last year with Cane, we had some games where we gave up in the 80’s or 90’s and won, but we probably don’t have as much firepower or at least we didn’t tonight.”
In Broome’s stead, the Pioneers turn to sophomore Quincy McKnight, a member of last year’s NEC All-Rookie team and the only returning player to average double figures last season. McKnight got off to a slow start Friday, pocketing his first points with just over five minutes left in the first half, but ended the night with a career-high 25.
“When he plays under control and he doesn’t try to do too much, he’s very good,” Latina said of McKnight. “I thought in the second half he moved the ball a little bit better and picked his spots. I thought in the first half he was pressing, he was holding it too long…He’s a good player, but he wants to be a winning player.”
3.) Senior leadership. Fairfield’s most productive players will be around for years to come, but there is one upperclassman the Stags are happy to have back. Amadou Sidibe returned to the court on opening night after missing all of last season due to injury and earning a redshirt exemption for a fifth season.
Though Sidibe played just 10 minutes with no points, he did corral five rebounds. Coach Johnson praised Sidibe’s leadership both on and off the court, and hinted his presence would be vital to the Stags’ success this year.
“Amadou is feeling fantastic,” Johnson said. “We thought we were going to get him back last year, but he just wasn’t ready. He’s healed better than ever, and he’s ready to roll. He’s like a sixth starter to be honest. He was rookie of the year in this conference, he’s a very good player in this conference.”
Fairfield now takes to the road to begin a three game swing, the first of which is at Dartmouth on Nov. 15. Sacred Heart will be hosting Hofstra on the same day, its lone home game in November.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.