Before the NCAA basketball season began, most people ranked the Fairfield University basketball team second in the MAAC, behind only the Sienna Saints, who went to the National Tournament last year and won a first-round game against No. 4 Vanderbilt.
The beginning of the season went well for the Stags, despite losing in Memphis 90-63 in the opener and dropping two of three in a tournament that took place in Puerto Rico. After the tournament, though, the Stags went on one of their best winning streaks in recent history, winning seven in a row, including victories over American, Holy Cross, and Drexel.
After the winning streak is when the team really began to go downhill, and it began with an away game in UConn, where the Stags at one point held a lead but eventually lost, 75-55. With that loss the Stags became the streakiest team in the MAAC, alternating between winning three and losing three.
So what happened with the team that showed so much promise at the start of the season?
First, injuries can certainly be a reason for blame. Anthony Johnson is most likely out for the season with blood clots in his upper chest, an injury that could have been a lot worse and was originally diagnosed as an upper body muscle pull. Johnson was the big presence down low and provided a sense of leadership among the rest of the team. When playing, he averaged 9.2 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.
Next, up-and-coming sophomore Warren Edney has missed 11 games this season with an ankle injury that will likely keep him out the rest of the season. He played in just three of his last 14 games for just 17 minutes and posted just nine points.
The third major injury that has hurt the Stags is forward Greg Nero, who has suffered a back injury. While it hasn't put a huge dent on his playing time, it has influenced his ability to post opponents, get rebounds, and create opportunities under the net. This injury has kept Nero off the floor just once and that was the last game against Niagara, in which the Stags lost 83-76.
Nero will likely be a game-to-game decision in hopes he will be ready for the MAAC tournament coming up in early March.
The biggest loss for the Stags was not done by injury, but drama. Jon Han left the team after constant disputes with coach Ed Cooley, which escalated after a 65-60 loss to Manhattan. Han has been at arms with Cooley ever since he took over for former coach Tim O'Tool, who originally recruited Han.
Han's presence has been missed on the court. He averaged a career-high 12.5 points and 5.3 assists per game. His leadership on the court is what is missed the most, because he was able to set up the offense at will and make passes to players like Nero and Johnson.
Han is most noted this season for single-handedly getting Fairfield back into a game against the MAAC-leading Sienna Saints that, at one point, had the Stags down 22-4. Han posted 20 points and two assists, and went 6-for-6 from the free-throw line.
The free-throw line is where the Stags have struggled the most this season. They're shooting just 66 percent, which is nowhere near other teams in the conference, like Loyola, who is shooting almost 76 percent.
Three-point shooting is also a weakness for the Stags, and they tend to rely on it too often when losing late in a game. The Stags are shooting 32 percent from three-point land, where teams like Marist shoot 38 percent.
Not all has been bad for Fairfield, though.
They have seen many bright spots in the lineup, including Ryan Olander, who has stepped in nicely for Johnson, and Herbie Allen, who has done very well stepping in for Jon Han. Allen, with a hurt wrist, has led the Stags to a 3-3 record while posting 8.4 points and 2.6 rebounds per game.
The Stags are currently fifth in the MAAC, one game behind Manhattan and one game ahead of Iona. They have just two games against conference opponents—Manhattan and Rider—so finishing in the three seed is not far-fetched, but they could fall as far as the eighth seed, where they would face a tough opponent in the first round.
One thing is for sure: If they want to make a long run in the MAAC tournament and have any hopes of making the National Tournament, players like Nero, Olander, Allen, and Evanovich will have to step up and play their "A" game down the stretch.