Monday, November 21, 2016

Selfless Stags proving last year was no fluke with 3-0 start

Off to 3-0 start for first time since 1995-96 season, Sydney Johnson has every right to be enthused by Fairfield's success and collected group effort in maintaining it. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

Through last season's resurgence, Sydney Johnson kept a level head while preparing his Fairfield team, preaching cohesiveness and an unselfish approach to a style that caught many opponents by surprise.

The move paid off, as the Stags won 19 games with an uptempo attack that was a glaring opposite from the slow, plodding offense run over the two previous seasons, and participated in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament for the third time in Johnson's five years at the helm.

With Marcus Gilbert having graduated, focus shifted as to how Fairfield would replace its fourth-all-time leading scorer. Junior guard Tyler Nelson, a second team all-Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference selection last season, was the primary option, at least on paper. But with the bulk of his roster returning, Johnson saw no need to tinker with what brought the Stags back to the top half of the MAAC and earned them a fifth-place preseason pick, opting for the same mindset as his team began the 2016-17 campaign.

"We don't need to add anything," Johnson said of the pieces he has in place this season; each equally responsible for Fairfield starting 3-0 for the first time in 21 years, their latest victory being a come-from-behind, 70-64 overtime win on the road against a Wagner team that won a regular season championship in the Northeast Conference. "We don't need any one guy. I think as a group, we can be strong."

Of the eight men to see the floor last Saturday against Wagner, each scored at least two points, Nelson leading the way with a game-high 23. Replacing a talent the likes of Gilbert does not come easy, but with budding stars the likes of Curtis Cobb and Jerome Segura in the backcourt; not to mention Jonathan Kasibabu and Matija Milin down low and on the perimeter, the future is indeed bright for the Stags, and that does not even account for sharpshooter Jerry Johnson Jr., who ranked eighth in the MAAC in three-point field goal percentage as a freshman last year and is currently out due to injury.

"We don't worry about points," Johnson reassuredly stated. "We just worry about sharing the ball and getting the best quality shot. A lot of times, it comes around to Tyler, and we just trust him to knock it down."

Fairfield concludes its three-game road trip Wednesday afternoon in Maryland against former MAAC rival Loyola, and for the Stags' coach, the game plan will be to keep doing them, a philosophy that was handsomely rewarded a year ago.

"I think we feel like we have a great team," said Johnson, exuding a quiet confidence. "When people weren't paying attention to us, those kids were on the court a couple of years ago and they were working through things, and now during the game, Tyler and Jerome are telling me what we should be doing as much as me telling them, and I'm really okay with that. That's kind of what you want to do. As a proud father, you kind of want to hand it off to them."

"It's a combined effort," said Nelson of the offensive responsibility. "Every night, someone else is stepping up. We're not trying to lean on one guy to give us 20-30 points. Anyone can score 20 on any night, so we're trying to do it as a group effort."

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