by Dan Gardella
As the Fairfield Stags prepare to enter the 2018-19 season, there is a buzz in the air surrounding Sydney Johnson’s squad that returns a large number of last season’s players that were just points short from appearing in their first NCAA Tournament in more than twenty years. Last year, there were question marks. With the return of key underclassmen along with a strong recruiting class, this year will have significantly fewer questions surrounding the Stags.
“At this time last year, we had eight newcomers, and we had some guys who decided to transfer. I know this time last season, there were a whole lot of people doubting what we were going to be able to accomplish. The doubt didn’t flow into this office and it did not flow into our practice gym.” Said Johnson. “We are reshaping our things, not rebuilding.”.
There is without a doubt a major gap in the program left by a Stag legend. Fairfield will be without Tyler Nelson, the school’s All-Time leading scorer who concluded his illustrious career by leading them to a MAAC Tournament Championship game appearance where they eventually came up short. With the loss of Nelson, and Ferron Flavors Jr., who was the second leading scorer on last season’s team, there is a question as to how the offense will flow. However, this is not a situation head coach Johnson is not accustomed to already.
With the top two scorers from last season’s team gone, opportunities arise for the countless players who made significant contributions to complement Nelson.
“Jonathan Kasibabu is a major player for us, Aidas (Kavaliauskas) was terrific, Jesus (Cruz) and Wassef (Methnani) had great years their first year with us. That’s a big part of it. I’m really excited about this team’s chance to grow and make some believers out of people.”
While Kasibabu and Matija Millin are the only two seniors on the roster, there is room for many other players to absorb a leadership role.
“Those two seniors who have played and helped us win games will be in the mix in terms of our leadership. I think there may be room for Aidas because he really had a positive influence on our team last season and he’s a smart kid.”
For Kasibabu, his offseason workouts have stretched beyond the United States. A few weeks ago, the senior forward competed for his home country, the Dominican Republic of Congo for the 2018 FIBA World Cup Qualifiers in Tunisia. In the three qualifying games, Kasibabu averaged 4.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game in just under 18 minutes.
“They had to play three games and win in order to qualify for the World Cup. So, they are pressure packed, he has a big role on the team, so it is a great experience for him and it will help him with Fairfield and beyond.”
As for the players Kasibabu and Millin will be leading, they will look to take the next step from followers to rising leaders.
“I’m excited about giving this group its chance to find its way. I think a number of these guys were following the lead of Tyler, Jerome (Segura) and Jonathan as well. I think this year some will continue to follow, but there is going to be some who will immerge as leaders second to Jonathan.”
Along with the rising sophomores, four newcomers come to Fairfield looking to build upon the foundation of trust and development which has been instilled by Johnson and his coaching staff. Among those newcomers is Neftali Alvarez. Alvarez, who was considered the best point guard in the state of Florida said no to countless schools, including prestigious programs such as Virginia, Purdue, and Wichita State before committing to Fairfield. Alvarez’s journey to Fairfield was greatly enhanced through a relationship with Stag’s assistant coach Tom Perrotta, who was close with Alvarez’s AAU coach and mentor Art Alvarez.
Joining Alvarez are guards Landon Taliaferro, Calvin Whipple, and Felix Lemetti. Taliaferro transfers from Laramie County Community College where he averaged 22.1 points per game along with shooting 48% from the three-point line. Whipple and Lemetti join Alvarez as true-freshmen joining Johnson’s squad. Whipple, a 6’4 guard from Massachusetts, and Lemetti, a 6’1 guard from Sweden.
With the addition of four new guards along with the return of guards such as Aidas Kavaliauskas, Jesus Cruz, and Taj Benning, there is one word to describe how playing time will be distributed: competition.
“Competition is healthy for everybody. For Aidas and Neftali, that will play itself out. They are both going to find their way onto the court.” Said Johnson. “Keep in mind that last season, what really helped us out was often we had four guards on the court. We do like to get up and down, we do like to press, we like to share the ball, we like to shoot threes. When you have four guards out there, it creates a whole lot of problems. That is why a kid like Taj, who is having a really good spring and summer could get on the court in a four-guard offense. If he continues on the trajectory he is on, he’s going to play. Guys can get out there if they can prove that they can help us win games.”
Two things that these four newcomers bring? Shot making and depth.
Fairfield took 30th most three point attempts last season (893) in all of college basketball and made the 50th most three point attempts last season (303).
“We want to close the amount we are taking and the amount we are making. Looking at Felix, Calvin, and Landon, they are proven shooters. For Neftali, that’s one part of his game that he is working on. Right there, we feel there is some shot making ability that we have been able to infuse into the program.”
“There is also a little more depth and competition because they are all guards, whether they are point guards, big guards, or small forwards. There is a lot of depth and versatility in the guard spot whereas last year, we relied heavily on Aidas, Tyler, Ferron, and Jerome with Jesus in the mix a little bit. They logged a lot of minutes last season. This year, there is a lot of competition and a lot of versatility and a lot of depth.”
This week, Fairfield released their non-conference schedule for the upcoming season. The Stags will open the 2018-2019 season on November 6th by traveling to West Lafayette, Indiana to face off with Purdue for the second straight season. Following that, Fairfield travels to Bucknell, the Patriot League Champion last season before hosting NEC Champion LIU Brooklyn in their home opener on November 13th. After LIU Brooklyn, the Stags host Wagner on November 17th before traveling to the Northwest to compete in Seattle University Tournament, which features Seattle University, Longwood University, and the University of Denver. Following the tournament, Fairfield travels to Army West Point before welcoming Oakland to the East Coast to conclude the home slate of their non-conference schedule. The Stags finish the non-conference schedule by traveling to Old Dominion, Boston College, and New Hampshire. Fairfield’s meeting with Boston College marks the beginning of a three-year series, which features two games at Chestnut Hill in 18-19 and 20-21 while the Eagles come to Fairfield next season.
With the schedule now in place, the Stags are ready to show the MAAC that this year’s team is not settling for another runner-up finish in the conference tournament. “These guys are going to be in very hotly competitive games, nationally televised games as well.”, said Johnson “ We’re excited about that and we want to establish winning to ultimately breaking through for a championship. When you are able to do that, you go into the first round of the NCAA tournament and face an ACC team, and Big East team, a PAC-12 team. We need and want to expose ourselves.”