BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — At last Friday’s Senior Night, 33 minutes before tip-off against Siena, Fairfield coach Ed Cooley bombastically thanked the families of his oldest players at the Arena at Harbor Yard, the Stags’ home venue. He did it from center court, over the facility’s loudspeakers, as hordes of students were conspicuously getting to their seats, no doubt psyched for their team’s nationally broadcast game on ESPN2.
The symbolic nature — beyond Senior Night — was what brought in the biggest crowd of Fairfield’s season. A win over Siena would mean a season sweep of the Saints — three-time defending champions of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC). Most students sported red shirts with bold-white font that said “BEAT SIENA.” The design was somewhat in the mold of the classic famous RUN DMC logo.
Cooley (right) continued on for more than just a few seconds, as he thanked the senior band members and senior cheerleaders. He showed gratitude to the scorekeepers and ball boys. He praised the fan base then, and multiple times after the 68-55 Stags win. The fifth-year coach is an affable man behind the mic, whether it’s in pregame, holding court to Stags fans, or in the postgame media room, where the usual press grouping is no more than six or seven deep — if that — when, sadly, a microphone isn’t required.
But Cooley and his 23-6 team have set themselves up for much more attention and amplification in the coming weeks, should they capitalize on the chances they’ve made for themselves.
“This is not our last home game,” Cooley said to the spectators last week. The reason: Fairfield finished in first place, 15-3, in the MAAC, two games ahead of Iona, a team the Stags lost to in the regular-season finale Sunday, 74-69. The conference tournament begins Friday in Bridgeport and culminates Monday night.
“Coach Cooley said it best: If the crowd’s like that, it’s going to be tough to beat us,” senior guard/forward Yorel Hawkins said. “It means a lot. More than any of the other students or community, more than they know.”
This year represents the best chance in 25 seasons for the Stags to dance. Call it Cooley's culmination, as he admitted his window for reaching the NCAA tournament was five years when he took the job that long ago. He and his team are right on time, but the hardest work needing completion could still be on its way.
Being a favorite, having an expectation of a tournament berth: it's unfamiliar territory for the Fairfield program. The Stags have made three NCAA tournaments, the last one coming in 1997, but that was an 11-19 campaign that burst with life in the MAAC tournament. This run is no fluke. With two wins, Cooley and his players will set a new single-season school record for victories. It’s only going to make the Big Boy Bracket if it wins the MAAC, but by doing that, a 13 seed is definitely a possibility.
A year ago, Fairfield was on the brink of this sort of success, but Siena was just plain better. The Saints still had their core of players that had done damage in the previous two NCAA tournaments. It rode the ability of its senior class and won the league and got the advantage of playing the conference tournament on its home floor in Albany.
“Last year we had chemistry, this year we have it, but this year it feels like we’re more together,” Hawkins said. “No one cares who scores, no one cares who makes the plays — we’re just in it together.”
Now Fairfield is the new Siena, even if that’s a comparison Cooley graciously rejects.
“I know what you’re saying there, but we’re just Fairfield,” he said. “I don’t want to be compared to anybody. We are who we are. We’re trying to build a brand and get to a place we haven’t been to for a long time. Siena had a great run — we’re just Fairfield. We’re not new, we’re not old. We just are who we are.”
If Fairfield’s going to win, stud sophomore Stags standout point guard Derek Needham (left) will need to play above everyone else, but Hawkins is also key. Hawkins is the open-shot assassin and a man who rebounds on the fly — literally. While Ryan Olander — brother of UConn freshman Tyler Olander — is cemented in the paint, Hawkins snares his rebounds only after coming in from 10, 15, 23 feet from the rim.
Cooley says whenever Hawkins goes to the basket, rebound or not, he’s getting his hand on the ball.
“With the MAAC tournament, we cannot pressure ourselves,” Hawkins said.
Needham, one of the quickest players in the conference, is best defined as a scooter. He can run the half-court offense, but sometimes he’ll choose to go from gear 2 to 5 just because he can. His numbers haven’t peaked this season, primarily, because Cooley wanted to make this team as spread out as possible.
“When you look at our stats, we’re not a great-shooting team, we don’t pass it great,” Cooley said. “One through nine.”
One through nine is the rotation Cooley has, which could be 10 if it were not for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which Greg Nero has. Nero, a senior, was expected to be a big contributor this year — perhaps making Fairfield better than it already is — but after Cooley and the coaches tried to make him a focal point, it just wasn’t working.
Needham, who was “sick as a dog,” (Cooley’s words) for last Friday’s game, still played and managed to keep Fairfield moving at a brisk pace. Fairfield’s transformation —both in team identity and shift into MAAC alpha — has gone largely unnoticed.
“It was about Derrick early,” said Cooley, “but he’s so unselfish and wants to deflect all the stardom.”
He'll likely need to seek and embrace it for Fairfield to be a feared foe later this month. He can be that good and now is his chance to make good on Cooley's vision. In terms of Fairfield's reputation, what we’ve got here is a low-major team with a point guard who’s definitely capable and a group with a deep bench. It seems the Stags have the DNA of a group that can surprise people. Note that this isn’t what Siena was, when the Saints were chic upset picks each year they made the tournament. Fairfield’s sneaky and under the radar.
But Cooley can only remain unknown if he gets beaten on his home floor over the next four nights. He is a coach that will make the tournament better because he’s a great quote. He comes off as honest and embraceable to just about everyone. The man refers to his freshmen, endearingly, as babies.
“They’re bigger babies now,” he said.
And he’ll use anyone, no matter scenario, from here on out, he said. But they’re still just babies. Clearly this is a man and a team ready to embrace his moment.
"I never feel any pressure. Zero," Cooley said. "Why? Because it's a game. It's 40 minutes. It's two rims, one basketball, and whoever wants it more is going to win that particular night."
By Cooley's terms, no team's wanted it as much in the MAAC as Fairfield has this year. With home-court advantage and a trip to the NCAA tournament four nights away, the desire should exceed the talent level.
Which means Fairfield should be going to its fourth tournament in school history.
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