Thursday, August 3, 2017

Nelson, Stags look to use newfound depth to run into NCAA Tournament

With likely MAAC Preseason Player of Year Tyler Nelson back for senior season, Fairfield has proven leader to add to what Sydney Johnson feels is his deepest team yet. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

In Sydney Johnson's first season at Fairfield, he took a Rakim Sanders-led Stags team stockpiled with talent left by his predecessor, Ed Cooley, to within four points of a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship, suggesting that there would be a new contender in a conference that had been dominated by Iona and Siena at that time.

That was six years ago this season, and despite the three appearances in the Postseason Tournament that have occurred under Johnson's watch in southern Connecticut, the ultimate goal of competing in the NCAA Tournament has still not been reached. However, if the affable and patient Johnson's convictions about the state of his newest group prove true, the Stags could add to an already rich legacy.

"We're just really pleased with what we've done here," he said with regard to the success that Fairfield has enjoyed since he replaced Cooley in 2011, rebounding with consecutive winning seasons to offset a two-year period in which the Stags compiled a 14-49 record. "We've had more winning seasons than any head coach in the last 40 years here, so that's pretty amazing. We've established a winning culture, and there's an expectation for players in the program and the recruits that we talk to that we're going to win games."

"That is a transformation, to be quite honest," Johnson elaborated. "We're really proud about that, and we just want to continue to up the ante. We've had two straight years of postseason play, and we want to make it a third where we ultimately have a chance to play on Monday night and play for the NCAA Tournament berth. That's the goal. Winning is established here, and that's a really good feeling to have."

Opportunities to enhance the Stags' winning ways will come early and often in a non-conference schedule that sees favorable opponents coupled with challenging road trips to Purdue and Houston, among others, in a schedule that is much more deceptive than some initially have given credit for, one that the man responsible for devising it considers to be an ideal examination for the battle-hardened unit he has formed.

"We coach our guys a lot in terms of being a mentally tough team," said Johnson. "You build that not only through challenging them in practice and pushing them to get better, but also playing against really good teams. We're playing probably the toughest schedule I've had, a mix of some Power 5 opponents and some really, really well-established programs at the mid-major level. We're going to be tested, and I'm honestly really excited about that. I want our guys to be cornered and see their reaction, because I know in March, all of that's going to pay off, especially with this group."

The Stags' journey will begin and end with Tyler Nelson, the reigning first team all-MAAC guard who enters his senior year as the prohibitive favorite for conference Preseason Player of the Year honors following the graduation of Monmouth's Justin Robinson. With Jerome Segura alongside him in the backcourt, the development of the Massachusetts native is a constant and ever-expanding sight in practice and game settings, and the bar for his productivity is as high as it has ever been following the transfers of Curtis Cobb and Jerry Johnson, Jr.

"I definitely expect him to be Preseason Player of the Year, and as he continues to develop over the spring and summer, I'm hoping he's Player of the Year," said Johnson of Nelson. "He's not only a terrific scorer and passer, but he's one of the smartest players I've ever coached, bar none. He's competitive as hell, and winning is the most important thing to him. And when you have your best player and your head coach prioritizing winning over anything else, a lot of things run smoothly and you have guys who are willing followers."

"His leadership has really grown," Johnson added, highlighting Nelson's willingness to take charge last season following the departure of Marcus Gilbert, a fellow first team all-MAAC honoree in his own right. "He's more vocal, he's a terrific teammate. He'll lead and encourage, and he'll also challenge in a way that's respectful, but he gets guys' attention. Other players want to follow that."

As far as Segura, who made huge strides at the point guard spot last season, Johnson is looking for a greater emphasis on facilitating the offense rather than being the alpha dog on the scoreboard.

"We want him to be, in some ways, like the straw that stirs the drink," he stated with regard to Segura and his expectations for the senior from Houston. "Just being the engine that makes us go, those are the things we want him to bring. He doesn't need to go out there and score 20 points, because we've got a lot of depth and versatility. What we need him to do is go out and get guys a lot of shots, show them how to defend and play hard, and be consistent. Those things he did very well as a junior, so if he could up that a notch as a senior, we'll be ready to roll."

On paper, Fairfield's front line looks to have taken a hit following the graduation of Amadou Sidibe, leaving Jonathan Kasibabu and Matija Milin to serve as the leaders in the paint entering their junior seasons. But to no surprise of those who follow the Stags consistently, Johnson, ever the eternal optimist, is singing a different; and much more upbeat, tune with regard to the stable of forwards going into the season.

"You may be surprised to hear this, but the frontcourt this coming year may turn out to be a strength of ours," he revealed. "We obviously return Jonathan and Matija, who are absolutely critical to what we do; Jonathan with his energy and enthusiasm, and Matija with his energy and skill, but we have three freshmen who are ready to go."

Wassef Methnani, a 6-foot-8 forward from Long Island, is described by Johnson as "just a tough kid" who is comfortable facing the basket on the block. "We're developing his shooting and ball handling, and we want him to be a knockdown shooter," he said. "He's comfortable in both those areas, but we want to get it to an all-conference level." Omar El-Sheikh is also 6-foot-8, lauded by Johnson for being long and rangy, and also for his pure athleticism. "By the time he's done here at Fairfield, he'll be a playmaking point forward," Johnson projected. "He plays hard, he can rebound, handle the ball and pass well." Finally, there is Kevin Senghore-Peterson, a 6-foot-5 Swede that is already drawing comparisons to one of his new coach's greatest success stories.

"Kevin is probably the closest thing we've had to Mo Barrow since he left," Johnson gushed, invoking the legend of the two-time former MAAC Sixth Man of the Year. "Mo was an outstanding rebounder and interior player, and ultimately, that was key in allowing him to be a pro. Kevin is very close to Mo in terms of that skill set and that type of body, and we see a really bright future with him in terms of facing the basket, passing, driving, making threes. He'll need a little bit of time on the three-point shot, but he's a tough, tough kid who's versatile."

Even with the infusion of new blood in the program, Fairfield's modus operandi remains unchanged, as Johnson remains committed to the uptempo attack that has spearheaded the program's resurgence. The new wrinkle, though, will be an added influx of depth.

"That's who we are," he proclaimed. "We are the Running Stags. That's just imprinted. I think you'll see a team that's very cohesive, and I'm excited from just the early signs I see. What you'll see different in 2017-18 is the depth. You're going to see some different guys out there. This year, we're easily eight, nine-deep, and you may see a tenth or eleventh guy out there at times as they develop and get more comfortable. The leadership will make us steady with Tyler, Jerome and Jon, but the depth is something that will be different this year. I'm hoping that will bode well this year, and hopefully beyond."

"It starts with their mental toughness," Johnson reiterated. "Mentally and physically, we need to be tougher to get to Monday night, and I think we have some pieces in this program that allow us to do that. Clearly, we want to win every game on our schedule, but we want to be special for three days in March."

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