FAIRFIELD — As the Fairfield Stags went through their practice paces this week in preparation for its pre-season trip to Italy, Alumni Hall was not being kind. The old building was holding in the heat and the humidity and, needless to say, the place was acting more like a sauna instead of a gym.
Still, some 200-plus fans sat in the stands - with former player Pete Gillen watching from the bench - as coach Sydney Johnson put his team through drill after drill after drill.
The team, 16 players strong, along with the coaching and support staff, left for Italy on Thursday, flying to Rome before traveling to Florence, Venice and Milan, to play games against three Italian teams. A working vacation, indeed, but also a journey to create the chemistry that will be necessary if the Stags wish to become one of the elite teams in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference this season.
“This is a great team in terms of chemistry and I have a lot of confidence in them,” Johnson said this week at a ‘meet and greet’ practice and Q and A session. “Offensively we’re going to be exciting. Defensively, we’re going to be versatile, trapping, being so much more aggressive. I’m really, really excited about that. The depth is there. We have a lot of new guys and it’s going to take time to gel, I get that, but these guys are willing to do whatever. They’re open books. We’ve been progressing well so far and that bodes well for the future.”
The molding of the clay started on Saturday when the team gathered on campus to being workouts for the Italy trip. And while Stags fans recognized some familiar faces - Tyler Nelson, Jerome Segura, Jonathan Kasibabu, Matija Milin, Tommy Nolan, Jared Harper and Oliver Cadieux - you’re going to need a program to start putting names to faces as Johnson brought in eight freshmen, along with a sophomore for this upcoming 2017-18 season.
“They’re not typical freshmen and that’s important,” Johnson said. “They’ve had experience playing with their national teams, a number of them are coming from post-grad institutions so they’re further along and you can see that in our workouts. We’re going to need time but not like it is with usually freshmen that don’t have a clue. These guys want to be good.”
The freshmen include: guards Taj Benning (6-3, 185) from Fair Lawn, N.J., Aidas Kavaliauskas (6-1, 175) from Lithuania, Alonde LeGrand (6-6, 185) from Harlem, N.Y., and Jesus Cruz (6-5, 210) Puerto Rico, along with forwards Aziz Sultan Essa (6-9, 250) from Kuwait, Omar El-Sheikh (6-7, 195) from Egypt, Wassef Methnani (6-8, 208) from Tunisia and Kevin Senghore-Peterson (6-6, 220) from Sweden with sophomore Ferron Flavors (6-4, 180) from Federal Way, Wash.
“I was very impressed with them. I really liked the freshmen. They’re good. They don’t look like freshmen. He’s got terrific guards … Segura and Nelson, really good players,” Gillen said, who played at Fairfield between 1965-68 and coached at Xavier, Providence and Virginia. He’s now a college basketball analyst for CBS. “They’ve have a chance to be good and this is the perfect trip for them. You get three games over there, scrimmages, bonding … it should be a great experience, especially for a young team. With eight or nine new guys, its perfect.”Read Full Article
And while there are bound to be rough edges in these initial practices (and there were) there was also a lot of energy and athleticism, double-teaming and trapping on defense and a lot of up-tempo offense, including Cadieux cutting the baseline to make a reverse layup on a pass from Segura … Flavors driving down the lane to score (and draw the foul) … and Nelson firing a no-look bullet to Methnani for a layup.
“Wassef … we beat out Iona, we beat out Manhattan. He visited Louisville. He’s a really, really, good player. I’m really excited about him,” Johnson said. “His high school teammate Omar, he’s wildly talented and goes really hard. Those guys could make an impact right away. Ferron is a junior college kid, so he’s already had a year of college ball. Those three jump out at you but it’s not limited to that.
Kevin is a really good player from Sweden, he reminds me of Mo Barrow. These kids are good.”
They’re going to have to be. Nelson (19.5 points) returns as the Stags top scorer with Milin (8.3), Kasibabu (6.3) and Segura (5.9) next in line. But after that, the drop off in points is severe as returnees Nolan, Harper and Cadieux combined to average 3.5 points. A lot of these new faces are going to have to step up.
“We have a lot of guys that played FIBA last year, they’re better experienced and they know how to play within a system,” Nelson said. “They play a lot older than they are, so they’re getting adjusted to the American way of college basketball but skill-wise, they’re right there and they definitely going to be able to make some contributions.”
Fairfield finished 16-15 last season and fell to UMBC in the opening round of the CollegeInsider.com tournament. Nelson, for one, feels this team has the potential to be a lot better.
“Depth is going to be our strength. We’ve been talking about it since day one,” he said. “We have a lot of guys that can play and contribute in different ways. We’re a team that’s going to press, we’re a team that’s going to go after the ball and run and we’re going to play a lot of guys. It should be fun.”