After Fordham picked up first win of season last night over Penn, Rams now shift their sights to Derek Needham and Fairfield, still a contender in MAAC despite loss of Rakim Sanders and Ryan Olander. (Photo courtesy of Connecticut Post)
Fordham played arguably their best basketball of the season last night in their first win, a 70-68 victory over Penn in the consolation round of the Preseason NIT. Interestingly enough, it came with senior forward Chris Gaston on the shelf after the all-Atlantic 10 big man underwent arthroscopic knee surgery Friday morning, keeping him off the court for at least the next month. In his absence, the Rams got 19 points and seven assists from junior guard Branden Frazier, now the team leader head coach Tom Pecora expected him to be; as well as 26 points combined from Bryan Smith (14, all but two of which came from beyond the arc) and Jeff Short, (12) not to mention a solid nine points and six rebounds from freshman Travion Leonard.
Frazier's seven helpers last night give him a total of 18 for the season to go with his 15.5 points per game, while his backcourt partner Smith averages just over thirteen per contest to go with a blistering 54 percent shooting clip from three-point range. The two are also Fordham's leading rebounders with Gaston out of the lineup, with Leonard and fellow rookie Ryan Rhoomes pulling down a combined seven boards per night. Jeff Short, described by Pecora as the Rams' X-factor before the season, comes off the bench to average just under eight points per game while shooting 31 percent from beyond the arc.
Up next from the Stabler Center on the campus of Lehigh University just outside Allentown, Pennsylvania, Fordham takes the court again tonight against Fairfield University. Now in his second year since arriving from Princeton, Sydney Johnson is in the midst of rebuilding the 2-2 Stags following a season in which Fairfield rode the interior dominance of seniors Rakim Sanders and Ryan Olander to the MAAC championship game and eventual appearance in the CIT. Now a senior, all-MAAC guard Derek Needham has recovered from a foot injury that cost him the end of his junior campaign, and leads a Fairfield offense that has been challenged in their first four games to say the least.
The Stags come into tonight's matchup averaging just 60 points per game, and their 67-point output in a losing effort to Lehigh last night is their season high. With an average of just under thirteen points per game, Needham is Fairfield's leading scorer and leading shot taker, not afraid to chuck the ball up as evidenced by his 52 field goal attempts, 32 of which have come from long range as he has moved off the ball while fellow senior Desmond Wade runs the point with just under seven assists and four rebounds per contest and a 1.59:1 assist to turnover ratio.
In Sanders' absence, junior swingman Keith Matthews, who had his first breakout game against Iona in the MAAC Tournament semifinals last March, has picked up the slack up front with his averages of eleven points and six rebounds per contest. It is the giant alongside Matthews inside the paint that poses the biggest problem for Fordham, that being seven-foot Croatian freshman Josip Mikulic, who has scored a total of 34 points in his first four games while shooting 54 percent from the field. The Rams have no true answer for Mikulic's size, which means that Pecora would be much better served giving Ryan Rhoomes or Ryan Canty a start up front rather than giving the nod to Khalid Robinson as he did last night in a four-guard starting lineup against Jerome Allen and the Quakers.
Both benches are about the same, as Fairfield has played an eight-man rotation for the most part, with freshman guard Justin Jenkins being the ninth man with a total of 20 minutes of playing time through the Stags' initial four contests. Both schools also have similar rebounding and defensive stats, which mean that tonight's contest can come down to two things on paper: Free throws (Fairfield comes in shooting 74 percent at the foul line to just 68 for Fordham) and ball control, as the Rams have a minus-19 turnover margin compared to the plus-3 of the Stags and plus-19 Fordham has yielded to its first four opponents, who average 79 points per game. Much to Fordham's credit, though, their defense has become considerably better each time out, improving from the 86 points given up to both Texas State and Pittsburgh to just 74 against Robert Morris and 68 last night against Penn.
Tonight's meeting with Fairfield will be the first of two consecutive games against MAAC opponents, as the Rams will host Manhattan in their home opener one week from Thursday. Fordham will have one more date with a MAAC foe later on this season, when Siena returns the favor from the Rams' road win last season by coming to Rose Hill on December 23rd.