Fairfield finished the regular season 14-15 overall with a 9-9 league record and will enter the MAAC tournament as the #6 seed. The Stags will face off against #11 seed Marist in the final game of Thursday’s opening round tripleheader at 9:00.
The Stags enter the conference tournament as one of the league’s hottest teams, winning their last four and seven of their last nine to end the season. Fairfield’s stellar second half play helped raise them out of the MAAC basement and into a favorable position to start the tournament. Fairfield split the season series with Marist with each team winning on its home floor.
Player To Watch: #3 Tyler Nelson, Sr. G
Fairfield is guided by the program’s all-time leading scorer, Tyler Nelson. The Massachusetts native leads the league with 21.8 ppg and last month against Quinnipiac scored his 2,007th career point to pass Tony George for the program lead. Earlier this week, Nelson was fittingly named to the All-MAAC First Team.
“So proud of Tyler Nelson and basically the weight and the bullseye that he carried all year long and how he’s dealt with that and come out on the other side being the all-time leading scorer and First Team All-Conference,” head coach Sydney Johnson said. “Obviously I’m biased, but I do think he’s the best player in our league among some outstanding players.”
Nelson has been held to single-digits scoring just once this season and five times over his last three years. He has reached the 30-point plateau five times this season, including a 35-point performance in this season’s first game against Marist. Nelson is undoubtedly one of the best scorers at the mid-major level, but also possesses an all-around skill set.
“He want from a catch-and-shoot guy to now he’s got the whole package,” Johnson added of Nelson. “He’s just really expanded his game, but he’s been consistent and competitive and gotten better, and he’s tough. People are physical with him and certainly locked in on him, and I think he’s handled that stuff pretty well.”
The Stags brought in a number of new players at the start of this season, and the team’s recent success could be due to the group finally gelling together. Additionally, Fairfield put together a challenging non-conference slate including Purdue, Houston, and Old Dominion. Those early growing pains may have finally led to strong play at this key juncture.
“As we played all these tough games, sometimes we didn’t come out with the wins, but we took a lot of lessons from them,” Johnson said of his team’s schedule. “I think that we learned how to try to win games, how to stay resilient, and it’s just a better look. The guys believe in what we’re coaching and certainly they believe in each other so it’s certainly a good way to go into the tournament.”
Nelson carries the spotlight everywhere he goes on the court, which oftentimes leaves his teammates with space to produce. Of Fairfield’s secondary options along the perimeter, Ferron Flavors Jr. stands out as the Robin to Nelson’s Batman.
Flavors is the lone other Fairfield player to average double figures, as he puts through 12.0 ppg. In the Stags’ 83-79 win over Marist on Feb. 15, Flavors poured in 16 points and nabbed 10 rebounds for his first career double-double.
Other first-year players having an impact for the Stags this season are freshman Jesus Cruz and sophomore Aidas Kavaliauskas. Cruz was in the conversation for the league’s All-Rookie team, but fell short despite averaging 9.0 ppg and 4.1 rpg.
Kavaliauskas, a native of Lithuania, was held back by visa issues last year and thus was not eligible to play until the midway point of this season. However, he quickly made up for lost time and solidified the Stags’ point guard position, putting together three double-digit assist games in his first eight contests. In 16 games this season, Kavaliauskas has compiled a remarkable 5.1 apg average.
Inside the arc, junior forward Jonathan Kasibabu has become a force at the close of the season. Kasibabu has scored double figures in each of his final five games to close the regular season while connecting on 73.7% of his attempts over that span. On the same afternoon Nelson became the program’s all-time leading scorer, Kasibabu put through a career-high 22 points with 15 rebounds.
With a number of solid perimeter options and a forward playing at the top of his game, Fairfield could be poised for a run in this year’s tournament.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.