Friday, July 20, 2018

Fairfield moves on without Nelson, yet still encouraged by potential and returning pieces

After graduating Tyler Nelson (left), Fairfield will have a new look to casual fans this season, but head coach Sydney Johnson is confident that Stags will not be worse off without all-time leading scorer. (Photo by the Connecticut Post)

When a school graduates its all-time leading scorer and arguably the most valuable player to a program in its conference the previous season, one question immediately comes to mind:

How do you replace him?

Fairfield is experiencing this dilemma presently, having to now navigate the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference without Tyler Nelson, the warrior guard whose four seasons in the Stags' red and white paved the way to a professional career that began in earnest this month with the Minnesota Timberwolves' Summer League team. But the runner-up in last year's MAAC Tournament has already gone past the first step on the journey to life without Nelson, a credit in large part to the unwavering faith and confidence of its head coach that both the players returning to the program and its newcomers would mesh strongly enough to maintain its status among the top half of the league.

"At this time last year, I was convinced that we had a supporting cast that was good enough," head coach Sydney Johnson recalled when assessing last season's conclusion and his team's prospects for the upcoming campaign. "I was very, very convinced that we had the supporting cast that was good enough. I don't think people believed me, and then I think with our slow start to the season, people doubted us. So what I can tell you is at the end of the season, and now going into 2018-19, I feel like we have good young players in the program now."

"I'm really excited that a number of them have had a year to get games under their belt. They continue to grow, but now they have a little bit of experience. We have good young players in the program, and now it's their turn to maybe grow and expand their roles and see how they can become the Tyler Nelsons, the Jerome Seguras, the Marcus Gilberts of the program moving forward."

With Nelson -- and second-leading scorer Ferron Flavors, Jr., who transferred -- having both departed, the bulk of the offense is up for grabs among the Stags' incumbents, but one player who could be one to watch this season is sophomore guard Jesus Cruz. A late signing by Johnson in the offseason last year, the Puerto Rico native made an impact for Fairfield on both ends of the floor, finishing third in points per game among his teammates but making a name for himself on the defensive side of the basketball by ranking among the top five in the MAAC in steals.

"I want him to just improve in those areas where we recruited him," said Johnson. "We told him we were going to give him an opportunity to play, and he can impact the game in many different ways. That's what he did defensively. He helped us rebound, he helped us defend, so I would say if he can keep doing that and establish some consistency from the three-point line, he's going to continue to blossom. It's time for him to turn it up a notch in all those categories."

Cruz will be one of the leaders in an up-and-coming backcourt, but perhaps the biggest strength for the Stags this season will be on the front line, where Johnson returns a pair of seniors in Jonathan Kasibabu and Matija Milin, both of whom will continue to mentor the next generation of Stag forwards, which includes sophomores Wassef Methnani, Kevin Senghore-Peterson and Omar El-Sheikh.

"They're both leading because they know the system," Johnson said of Kasibabu and Milin, each of whom having been starters and significant pieces in the rotation in all of their first three years in the program. "They know my expectations, they know how tough the league is, and I think they've been very good in trying to help their teammates. The second thing that they've embraced is competition in our own gym. They understand if they don't come to work -- they're the seniors, but we have good young players that are more than happy to earn minutes -- Jon and Matija have embraced competing and respecting the young players in our program, and allowing them to emerge as well. It's a nice balance there."

One of those young players that emerged during the second half of last season was point guard Aidas Kavaliauskas. Ineligible during the fall semester due to visa issues that also sacrificed his freshman season, the Lithuanian import burst on the scene at the end of December last year and instantly transformed the Stags' offense into a more cohesive, fundamentally sound unit, setting the foundation for his first full season as a junior.

"I think it's tough to become eligible mid-year and be handed the reins, but at any given time when Aidas was on the court, he could be leading the team," Johnson assessed. "Moving forward, it's great that he'll have a full 30 games. He's always been a really, really smart kid, he studies the game a lot. He and I have a lot of conversations throughout the year in terms of getting really good shots and getting guys on the same page. He's an incredibly selfless basketball player."

"When you have a whole lot of talent with guys who can do a lot of different things, it's really good to have a guy on the court that's just really like a conductor, who just wants to let that happen. That's one of the great strengths he brings us. He understands the big picture and is trying to keep guys connected, and be able to do things towards their strengths. What we're talking to him about, as much as anything, is to leave some room for you to do some stuff. If he can do that consistently, then that'll be a step forward for him."

Kavaliauskas will benefit from the arrival of Neftali Alvarez, a freshman guard from Miami heralded as perhaps Johnson's biggest recruit, one that Alvarez's mentor likens to NBA veteran J.J. Barea, as well as helping shepherd sophomore Taj Benning along to preserve Johnson's vision of raising Fairfield's profile with the infusion of youth.

"We've aggressively recruited a roster of guys who are going to share the basketball, are going to play really hard, and are going to embrace being really good teammates," Johnson said. "We have a lot of talent in our gym. The issue is just kind of getting them all enough reps to play together and grow throughout the season, get game experience, and then peak at the right time."

"The one thing I can tell you is this team is going to give everything they have. These guys are very competitive. People are going to enjoy seeing us compete, I can promise you that."

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