Does Fairfield stand a chance of scoring a March upset, or will Iona defy the standings and unseat the favorite?
Two leaders of the MAAC
Through games of February 14, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession Opp. PPP: opponent PPP
EM: efficiency margin (PPP - Opp. PPP)
W-L Pace PPP Opp. PPP EM
1. Fairfield 13-2 66.5 1.02 0.88 +0.14
2. Iona 10-5 69.5 1.13 1.00 +0.13
3. St. Peter's 10-5 66.4 0.98 0.89 +0.09
4. Rider 10-5 70.0 1.05 1.00 +0.05
5. Loyola (MD) 9-6 65.5 1.04 1.01 +0.03
6. Siena 7-8 67.6 0.99 0.99 0.00
7. Canisius 7-8 65.5 1.02 1.02 0.00
8. Niagara 3-12 69.4 0.86 0.98 -0.12
9. Marist 3-12 65.5 0.94 1.10 -0.16
10. Manhattan 3-12 64.2 0.93 1.09 -0.16
AVG. 67.0 1.00
There's a reason Fairfield is one of the nation's most highly regarded mid-majors. The Stags are 20-5, they've dominated their conference to the tune of a +0.14 efficiency margin, and they reside in between Virginia Commonwealth and Valparaiso in the list of mid-majors in Ken Pomeroy's ratings.
Fairfield plays a brutal brand of defense that has the team sitting just ahead of heavy hitters Temple, Villanova, Florida State and Kansas State in adjusted defensive efficiency. At the heart of that D is the uber-aggressive approach shared by coach Ed Cooley (43-16 since the start of last season) and the four perimeter players who earn the most minutes. Point guard Derek Needham and wings Colin Nickerson, Yorel Hawkins and Jamel Fields have all posted steal rates of 2.4 percent or better. Nor does it hurt matters that Hawkins, along with small forward Warren Edney and posts Maurice Barrow and Ryan Olander, can really crash the defensive glass. Each of the four has corralled at least 13 percent of the available defensive rebounds during his time on the court.
The Stags aren't especially tall aside from the seven-foot Olander, but they are very big. Barrow, a 6-5 power forward, has earned half as many free throws as he has attempted field goals and grabbed about 10 percent of the possible offensive rebounds. At 6-5 and 207, Hawkins is a mismatch at the three for MAAC opponents, and his backup, Edney, is the same size. In a 70-69 overtime victory at St. Peter's on Sunday, Fairfield out-toughed the toughest team in the conference. Thanks in large part to three steals apiece by Needham and Fields, the Stags forced a turnover on 26 percent of the Peacocks' possessions.
It all sounds great, but what will happen when Fairfield finds itself matched up against a longer and more athletic 5- or 6-seed come tournament time? If they can't assert their physical dominance on the defensive end the Stags might be in trouble, because they don't possess much of an offense. Tied for fourth in points per trip in a league that's not exactly bursting at the seams with offensive firepower, Fairfield has two solid medium-volume scorers in Hawkins and Olander and a hit-or-miss gunner in Needham. Needham was brilliant at times against St. Peter's, burying five of his nine three-pointers and creating key separation in the first half. At other times, not so much. With Fairfield clinging to a final-minute lead, Needham chucked a 26-footer and committed a charging foul to allow St. Peter's an overtime period and a near victory. Other than Needham, the Stags are bereft of the accurate or frequent three-point shooters that could lift them past a more talented opponent in March.
After the St. Peter's game Cooley said his team used "grit, determination," and "brotherhood" to sneak past the Peacocks. They might need more than that against a team that starts a player taller than 6-7. And that's assuming Fairfield's able to ride its likely regular season title through the conference tournament and into the NCAAs. There's another team sitting three games out of first place that has exhibited more balance and a much better offense than have the Stags: Iona.
I wrote glowingly about the Gaels back in December, and since then they've posted a +0.13 efficiency margin against MAAC opponents thanks to average defense and stellar offense. The league's best offensive player (Michael Glover) and its best true point guard (Scott Machado) both ply their trade in New Rochelle alongside capable three-point shooters (Jermel Jenkins, Kyle Smyth, Rashon Dwight) and a heck of a rebounder (Alejo Rodriguez). The Gaels lost a close-but-not-that-close four-point decision at Fairfield earlier this month and have another chance to scout the conference leaders on February 27 before a possible conference tournament showdown.
If Fairfield and Iona falter, St. Peter's and Rider would be the likeliest candidates to make the field of 68, and for completely different reasons. St. Peter's is a very flawed offensive team that relies on a very, very raw talent in Jeron Belin for 29 percent of the team's shots during his minutes, leaving rebounder extraordinaire Ryan Bacon to clean up any resulting mess. For their part Rider's a decent defensive team and a good offensive squad that has already defeated Fairfield once this season. The Broncs possess the MAAC's best offensive perimeter player in Justin Robinson, a 44 percent shooter from three and from two, and a 90 percent free-throw shooter.
Loyola (MD), Siena and Canisius make up the middle of the pack. Loyola's just a bit better than average on both sides of the ball, with its offensive rebounding serving as its strongest suit. As for Siena, despite Ryan Rossiter's (notable) best efforts on the glass the Saints have gone from powerhouse to also-ran in a single season. Canisius is much better than it was in 2008 (6-25, 2-16) but not exactly good. Past that, Niagara, Marist and Manhattan are a particularly unhappy trio. The Red Foxes might be in the worst shape of all, having lost 10 in a row.
Asher Fusco is a writer in New York City. Follow him on Twitter at AsherFusco.