Tag:Sydney Johnson
Posted on: November 15, 2011 12:37 am

Cooley's homecoming an emotional, relieving event

By Matt Norlander

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- Monday night was the toughest game Providence coach Ed Cooley ever had to endure at Webster Bank Arena -- and he did it on an opposing sideline. The former Fairfield coach, who went 92-69 with the Stags (his only other job as a head coach) the past five years, saw his Friars upset -- yes, upset; the Stags were 7.5-point favorites -- the home team in front of a crowd of 6,375 people.

It was the regular-season attendance record for Fairfield. Cooley, who is beloved in the area despite never making an NCAA tournament, coming back was a large part of it, in addition to the fact Fairfield's considered an elite team in the MAAC, with Iona. 

Cooley's team played well against his former one. Twice the Friars gave up double-digit leads, but the third time they put a barrier between themselves and the Stags, it didn't get close again. Providence 80, Fairfield 72. Cooley was so relieved the game had come and the day was finally over.

“I’m so happy today’s over,” Cooley said. “Just all the dog-gone questions. It’s about the players, it’s not about me. Make it about our players.”

But it was about Cooley and about one player: Fairfield's Rakim Sanders. Sanders is the fifth-year forward at Fairfield with the NBA game who was recruited by Cooley way back when. Back when Cooley was an assistant on the grind with Boston College, working toward his first head-coaching job, which he did get in 2006 at Fairfield.

Sanders transferred out of Boston College to Fairfield two years ago. The goal was to play for Cooley, for just the one year of eligibility he'd have left. Sanders scored more than a thousand points in ACC play. The two had become close over the years, and it was believed they'd reach the NCAA tournament together. He took his mandatory redshirt season last year and waited it out, watched a Fairfield team win the regular season in the MAAC but fall in the semifinals -- at home -- of the conference tourney.

After the season, the Providence job opened up, and Cooley had to take his hometown, dream gig. Marriage of coach/recruiter and player never came to be. Monday night, it was a bit awkward, as Cooley had to coach against a kid he brought closely into his life.

“I could say a thousand things about the guy,” Sanders said. “Great guy. Just, somebody you could talk to on a personal level. Growing up without a father figure, watching how he worked, went home to his family and kids -- he’s a beautiful person.”

Cooley did his best to answer all the questions one more time, but to make it more about his current kids. He acknowledged how much Sanders meant to him, but, really, the win was more uplifting than symbolic at this point for him.

“It was an emotional day for me, all-around,” Cooley said. “Today was about Providence College. … I’m very proud of the community coming out to support both teams. I’ll forever be a part of this (the Fairfield) program."

Sanders was a monster Monday night. He looked like an NBA draft pick, scoring 25 and grabbing nine boards despite being hampered with foul trouble and only getting 28 minutes of playing time. He certainly wasn't distracted -- but his team looked lackluster when he wasn't on the floor.

“I think I focused on the game well,” Sanders said. “It was about us, and what we did. It’s not about Cooley coming back and what he was going to do. But I’m sure a lot of our guys were a little more emotional, a little more up to play. It’s like any other game, really, for me. It’s not about me -- it’s about how we played and this new chapter for us.”

What's more, it was the first Providence road win in nearly two years (Jan. 14, 2010 against DePaul), a fact Cooley was unaware of until it was pointed out to him earlier in the day. He and his team were also aware of how they weren't expected to win this game.

“I told my team. We played a veteran team, we’re young, they’re experienced, they earned that line to start the game,” Cooley said. “I definitely told my team about that. There’s no secrets, no secrets in that locker room.”

And no secrets about what Cooley meant to Fairfield, what Fairfield meant to him, and what Sanders and Cooley still mean to each other. But those relationship can continue to grow well after this season has past. The two programs got their shot at each other, the former coach one, and now everyone can move on. After seeing the body language in the hall afterward, it's definitely what everyone is ready for, almost as if this was an irritating chore that needed to be taken care of before each team's season could really begin.

Photo: AP
Posted on: November 14, 2011 10:38 pm

Video: Cooley, Sydney Johnson postgame interviews

By Matt Norlander

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- Ed Cooley's homecoming went as well as he could have asked for tonight. The former Fairfield and first-year Providence coach came back to Connecticut and coached his team to an 80-72 win in front of a record-setting regular-season crowd at the Webster Bank Arena.

For Cooley, it was emotional not only because he used to coach the Stags ('06-'11), but also because he coached against a player he knows well, recruited to Boston College and envisioned coaching this year at Fairfield: Eagles transfer and fifth-year player Rakim Sanders. Sanders scored 25 in the loss for FU tonight. I'll have a post up in a bit on the night for everyone involved, but here are the two one-on-one interviews with the head coaches from tonight.

First, Cooley.


Posted on: October 28, 2011 3:01 pm

Fairfield loaded and ready for a huge year

By Matt Norlander

FAIRFIELD, Conn. -- There stands the possibility, realistic, reach-out-and-touch-it possibility, this could be the greatest year in the history of Fairfield basketball.

It will chase after that prospect with a new coach, a few big transfers, yet not a tremendous amount of pressure. Sydney Johnson, who came to the Stags via Princeton in the spring, has his team pegged as second-best in the MAAC to Iona, according to league coaches and a majority of media that covers the conference. But Johnson has the best pro prospect in the league in Rakim Sanders (a Boston College transfer), as well as two guards who can play the 1 tremendously. Derek Needham's done it the past couple of years for FU, and Desmond Wade, a speedy, craft, veteran point who comes by way of the University of Houston.

They've also got a solid 2/undersized 3 in Colin Nickerson, and senior big man Ryan Olander looks even better than last year, when he came into his own.

I sat in on Thursday's practice sessions, and I saw a team with a lot of length, a lot of agility, a lot of speed and pretty good shooting. At one point, the team hit 11 straight 3s during a warmup drill. That doesn't account for much, until you consider the forwards and centers were tickling twine, too.

I was at Iona Wednesday, and with Momo Jones, I think that team's got a lot of potential. But I think Fairfield's a smidge better right now. The guard situation is the most intriguing between both squads. Each have "problems" that any mid-major program, and plenty of major ones, would envy. Iona's got two combo guards with point guard ability in Jones and Scott Machado (who we think is one of the best point guards in America -- though he's listed after Needham). Fairfield's playing with two point guards who can switch the the 2 if need be.

The change isn't drastic for any of the four guards, it's just the Gaels will likely have more turnovers in the backcourt than Fairfield this year. Inversely, the Stags won't get as much offensive production from their guards as Tim Cluess' Iona team will.

Fairfield's schedule gives a few opportunities for marquee wins, Ws they can absolutely take. Like getting the first home game of the season against Providence, who is now coached by Fairfield's former Poobah, Ed Cooley. (That game could be a little awkward, huh?) Three days later, it's at Minnesota. Tough, but winnable for this team. And that's the difference. Fairfield's got talent and toughness to take on average Big Six teams. It's not going to beat UConn three days before Christmas, but Dayton, Wake Forest and Arizona State are all ripe for the picking.

And if Fairfield can get three Ws against BCS teams, it stands a chance to earn an at-large way down the road. so long as it doesn't lose more than three conference games.

At practice, Johnson's got a cool demeanor, the staff is very hands-on, and even participating. Assistant coach Tyson Wheeler suited up for five-on-five, because FU's got three players with minor injuries sitting it out for a few more days/a week. I think Iona's going to be the team that's more fun to watch, because there's a ruggedness there, but Fairfield will be smooth. Johnson's team already looks much more in shape than Cluess'.

As for Sanders, the guy who was beat out (rightfully) by Iona's Mike Glover for MAAC Player of the Year, Johnson told me that's how he wanted it to be.

"Glover's got it done in this league," he said. "To say Rakim should be the preseason player of the year? No. He hasn't proven it in this league yet."

The ceiling for Sanders is high. He didn't pop out to me in practice, but he's not a huge practice player. I think that's part of it. He goes when the bodies fill the seats. He's motivated, for sure. He scored more than a thousand points in the ACC. That kind of player should do untold damage in the MAAC. I think he's more vital to NCAA tournament hopes than the Wade/Needham combo, which I predict will be un-guardable (generally speaking) in the league this year.

Ultimate takeaway from watching the team for more than two hours: impressed. Good camaraderie, good energy. This group was a very good defensive unit last year. I think that remains true, but expect the offense (they were awful from 3) to really get an uptick, and with that you'll see the jelling of a team that can get key wins and remain atop the MAAC race and in the thick of the bubble picture into February.
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