Posted on: March 6, 2011 9:00 pm

It'll be Iona vs. St. Peter's for the MAAC title

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — “Ditto from yesterday?”

That was the question from first-year Iona coach Tim Cluess when he was asked to give an opening statement following his team’s 83-59 MAAC semifinal win over No. 3 Rider.

What else could Cluess say? His team had just beaten another opponent’s brains in. It’s been a ditto-minded run for the past nine games, as the No. 2 Gaels have won that many in a row and seem to be an overwhelming favorite against fourth-seeded St. Peter’s in Monday night’s title game. Only two of the nine wins have had a margin of less than 14 points by game’s end.

Iona kept Rider at arm’s length for the majority of Sunday night’s semis, then blew out the Broncs at the 10-minute mark, moving ever further from their inferior competition, proving they are the most lethal team in the conference, even if Fairfield won it.

The bittersweet tinge to this for the Gaels — Kyle Smyth injured his labrum in the first half against the Broncs. Cluess said he’d know more about the injury Monday morning, but the numbness had subsided. The injury wasn’t shocking; this is something Smyth has dealt with frequently in recent years.

Looking to Monday night’s MAAC championship game, there is some history to peek at. Iona and St. Peter’s (19-13) will meet for the fourth time in a MAAC title game. The Gaels have a 2-1 edge, having won the 1982 championship in overtime, 66-61, and the one five years ago, 80-61. The Peacocks defeated Iona in ’91, 64-58. Iona swept St. Peter's this season.

Iona (22-10) is definitely loose (more on that in a sec), and there a couple of themes and story lines with them heading into the title game. Chief among them: the culmination, the complete turnaround of a program that went 2-28 four years ago and was historically inept. That building process was led by Kevin Willard, who was hired by Seton Hall last spring. An NCAA bid within four years? That ship-steering isn’t easily done in mid-major basketball.

A second theme, if you will, is a familial one. St. Peter’s Wesley Jenkins and Iona’s Jermel Jenkins are brothers. They’ll battle each other and no doubt talk some trash in Bridgeport Monday night.

“It’s a family feud; it’s always a joy to go against each other,” Jermel Jenkins said. “I’m going to look at it as just another game, even though it’s not. It’ll be good to keep it (an NCAA tournament berth) in the family somehow.”

Jermel Jenkins also said this is the first time he and his brother have ever faced off on opposite teams in meaningful competition. Jermel lit up Rider for 20 off the bench Sunday night.

Iona and St. Peter’s couldn’t be much more different from each other, from styles to body language. The Gaels have the 11th-best effective field goal shooting percentage in the country. St. Peter’s pays its rent by making teams’ shoot terribly. In the postgame from their win of Fairfield, the Peacock players were direct and rigid. Happy, but definitely businesslike.

Iona was the opposite. Four players and Cluess packed on to the tiny platform in the media room at the Arena at Harbor Yard. Gaels senior Michael Glover brought his 2-year-old son up with him. The prescient moment of the press conference came when Jenkins was asked how he was able to score 20 off the bench.

“Luck of the draw when the shots went in,” Jenkins said with a smile and a chuckle.

Mike Glover Jr. let out a wistful youngster’s laugh, forcing the press corps to follow his lead.

The two teams are familiar with each other, and have been rooting for the other to make it to the MAAC finals. So it shall be.

“We’re friendly with a lot of them,” Iona’s Scott Machado said. “They’re on the same floor as us in the hotel. And when we came back from the win, they were all cheering for us.”

Machado thought he could get away with only that quote. Fortunately, his head coach interjected and offered up an incredible anecdote about the teams’ dynamic. You see, in the late hours at Bridgeport’s downtown Marriott, two ambitious teams had … a dance-off.

  “Can I finish that story? Because Scott left a part out,” Cluess said. “Last night, at one end of the hall was St. Peter’s, and one end was us. They were having a dance-off in the hallway.”

Iona’s players swear it won the dance-off. Either way, what an image.

And it's one more victory to go, then the last one standing gets the biggest dance of all.

Posted by Matt Norlander

Photo: AP

Here is the my postgame interview with Cluess.

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Posted on: March 6, 2011 5:35 pm

On site: No. 1 Fairfield upset in MAAC semis

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Top seeds go down with regularity in small-conference tournaments. But how often do we see a team get clipped like Fairfield did … in the semifinals?

The No. 1 Stags lost on their home floor Sunday afternoon, falling to the fourth seed in the MAAC tournament, St. Peter’s, 62-48. The Peacocks possess the third-best effective field goal percentage defense in the country. So trying to come back from 25 down against them can feel like 40 against any other MAAC squad.

The deficit was too much for the Stags, who will be going to the NIT by virtue of winning the regular-season MAAC championship. St. Peter’s will get the chance to play for its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1995 Monday night at 7 p.m. It’ll face the winner of Iona-Rider, which I’m settling in to watch now at the Arena at Harbor Yard. It’s the first conference title-game appearance for the Peacocks since 2006.

“What has hurt us the entire year — we talked about habits, we talked about habits the first team meeting this September when we came back to school — and I think our team habits really caught us in the end,” Fairfield coach Cooley said. “Our team habits: when we turn the ball over. … Our devil is turning the ball over.”

For the majority of the second half, the Stags surged. They didn’t allow the Peacocks to score their fourth point until 7:56 remained in the game.

“Not have a meltdown and let them just take over the second half,” Wes Jenkins said of the Peacocks’ hang-on-and-win strategy. “We need our first basket to get the rhythm going. (Jeron) Belin got it from us, and we went from there.”

Belin’s basket made it a 44-36 game. Holding such a large lead was unfamiliar territory for St. Peter’s, head coach John Dunne said.

“We haven’t been in that position where we’re playing a great team — and they are — and we’re up so big,” Dunne said. “Emotionally, maybe we had a little bit of a letdown, and we weren’t focused enough.”

Today was the first loss to St. Peter’s in Cooley’s tenure. He was measured, but unhappy, in the postgame presser.

“I’m not stunned. They are kids,” Cooley said of the 40-15 halftime deficit. “You can’t get down 25 in tournament play and expect to win. That’s for damn sure.”

Was Dunne surprised by the 40-15 lead?

“No question, absolutely,” he said.

Nearly the entire building was shocked. St. Peter’s was physical and went to the hoop at will. Not only did turnovers hamper the Stags, the Peacocks’ affection for plays in the paint kept Fairfield at a standstill.

“The first 20 minutes, we just weren’t ready to play,” Cooley said. “We were listless, we didn’t play with a lot of emotion. Really, we were out of character as a group.”

Fairfield’s a team that could’ve flirted with a 13 seed had it won. Sophomore point guard Derek Needham sat in the postgame press conference, arched over, practically furled into a quasi-fetal position. Whenever a question wasn’t addressed to him, his forehead was smack-flat on the table. No tears, just disbelief. His responses to questions were barely audible.

  “They were who they were. That’s how they play every single game,” Cooley said. “We weren’t who we were.”

As far as moving forward to the NIT, Cooley said he’s not even “a little bit” thinking about pride in regard to making the NIT.

“Going into the season that was clearly not our goal. That will never be our goal,” Cooley said. “We feel we built a championship team with our recruiting.”

With a MAAC and NCAA championship off the table, the fifth-year Fairfield coach will have to settle for chasing an NIT one.

Posted by Matt Norlander

Photo: AP

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Posted on: March 4, 2011 12:00 pm
Edited on: March 4, 2011 12:03 pm

Conference tourney preview: MAAC

No conference has a better collection of monikers than the MAAC. Purple Eagles! Golden Griffins! Red Foxes! There's Peacocks and Greyhounds and Jaspers. And Broncs. Not Broncos — Broncs. If only the men were as mythical as the mascots.

Still, it's been a postseason tournament that's gotten a lot of good exposure in recent years due to its winning representative doing damage in the tournament. And that Monday, 7 p.m. time slot to kick of Championship Week on ESPN is also good real estate.

This year's MAAC tournament is going down in Bridgeport, Conn., as Fairfield, the league's best team, will host the festivities. It's been a sea change in the conference this season, as three-time defending champs Siena has taken an expected dip in the wake of losing its coach, Fran McCaffrey, to Iowa and a senior class to graduation.

But it still has the conference's best player, Ryan Rossiter (right), who formally took home that award last week. The Saints finished 12-17 this year with an 8-10 record. They aren't likely to make it to the dance for the fourth straight season.

But Fairfield is expected to make it to its fourth dance in school history. I hit upon Fairfield's season, its coach, its chances yesterday. The Stags will tussle at the top with Iona, a team that is just as capable. The Gaels finished 13-5, two games behind Fairfield.

No team is as deep as Fairfield, and the Stags have point guard Derek Needham to lead the way. Iona's a better-shooting team, and these conference tournaments can be about getting hot, of course. If the Gaels do that, they can knock off Fairfield in the title game without a tremendous amount of trouble.

Rider, the three, also finished 13-5, but lost out on tiebreakers for the bye. St. Peter's is the four seed, and beyond that, it's unlikely we'll have any other team capable of reaching the finals Monday night.

Everyone gets the invite to this one, but the top two teams get a rest and don't have to play tonight.

I'll be there Sunday and Monday, so look for coverage here on the site. Should be pretty interesting to see what kind of crowd Fairfield can bring, as it's harped on how much it needs that big home-court advantage to really get a push for its first tournament berth in 14 years.


Title game: Monday, March 7, 7 p.m., ESPN.


  1. Ryan Rossiter,    Siena
  2. Michael Glover,  Iona
  3. Derek Needham, Fairfield

Conference RPI: 16

KenPom.com rating: 15

Sagarin rating: 16

NCAA tournament locks: None

Bubble teams:  None

Last NCAA tournament Appearance:

Canisius Golden Griffins: 1996, 13 seed, lost first-round game to Utah, 72-43.

Fairfield Stags: 1997, 16 seed, lost first-round game to North Carolina, 82-74.

Iona Gaels: 2006, 13 seed, lost first-round game to LSU, 80-64.

Loyola (MD) Greyhounds: 1994, 15 seed, lost first-round game to Arizona, 81-55.

Manhattan Jaspers: 2004, 12 seed, won first-round game over Florida, 75-60. Lost second-round game to Wake Forest, 84-80.

Marist Red Foxes: 1987, 14 seed, lost first-round game to Pittsburgh, 93-68.

Niagara Purple Eagles: 2007, 16 seed, won opening-round game over Florida A&M, 77-69. Lost first-round game to Kansas, 107-67.

Rider Broncs: 1994, 15 seed, lost first-round game to Connecticut, 64-46.

Siena Saints: 2010, 13 seed, lost first-round game to Purdue, 72-64.

St. Peter's Peacocks: 1995, 15 seed, lost first-round game to UMass, 68-51.

Photo: AP

Posted by Matt Norlander

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Category: NCAAB
Posted on: March 3, 2011 5:00 pm
Edited on: March 3, 2011 5:26 pm

March Stag-ness? Fairfield eager to break through

Posted by Matt Norlander

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.

“Based on our experience from a year ago, we’re incredibly driven,” Cooley said. “When you look at our team, everyone says, ‘Who you gonna stop?’”

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.

Photos: AP

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