After winning their first three MAAC games (two of which were played in December), Sydney Johnson's Fairfield (17-11, 12-4) Stags lost three straight league games and looked to be anything but a contender for the regular season title. Well the players have looked more comfortable with their first-year head coach, and sure enough here are the Stags sitting just a game out of first place heading into the final weekend of league play. Tonight they visit Iona (22-6, 13-3) with first place on the line, and a win for the Gaels would clinch their first regular season title since the 2000-01 season.
Iona won the first meeting 71-62 on January 27th and Fairfield has won seven of eight since, with Derek Needham and Rakim Sanders both playing good basketball. Needham was a preseason candidate for MAAC Player of the Year, and while the season hasn't worked out in that fashion the Illinois product has the ability to get things rolling offensively. Needham shot 4-for-12 in the first meeting, scoring 11 points to go along with eight rebounds and four assists, and he's shot worse than 44% from the field in just two games since. Sanders leads the Stags in scoring and rebounding, and his versatility makes the Boston College transfer a threat both inside and out.
Fairfield may not score as much as Iona but that doesn't mean the Stags lack guys who can score. In addition to Needham and Sanders Fairfield has Maurice Barrow and Ryan Olander inside, with Barrow being a workhorse on the glass and Olander possessing range out to about 15 feet with consistency. But the problems for Fairfield in the first meeting came on the defensive end, which was somewhat predictable given how potent the Iona attack is. The Gaels shot 50% from the field in Bridgeport, and the straw that stirs the drink is senior point guard Scott Machado.
The nation's leading assist man had just five assists in the first meeting but he made seven of thirteen shots from the field and scored 18 points. Add Momo Jones' 20 to that and there's a big reason why the Gaels were so successful against the Fairfield defense. Jones has become more comfortable in his role after some early struggles, which has added to an offense that also features Mike Glover inside and shooters Sean Armand and Kyle Smyth. Tempo is going to be key, because the more possessions the tougher things get for Fairfield. The Stags average just one point per possession and Iona enters the game at a 1.15, but if they can make this a half-court battle they've got a shot.
West Virginia gets another shot at a win over a ranked opponent as they host #10 Marquette, who has played outstanding basketball of late. On an individual level three of the top candidate for Big East Player of the Year will be on display, as Kevin Jones and the Mountaineers look to slow down Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom. Crowder and DJO were unstoppable last week in their win at Connecticut, and Buzz Williams' team is more than tough enough to go into a hostile environment and win. WVU needs their guards to play consistently in order to win, especially Truck Bryant and Jabarie Hinds. A West Virginia win would go a long way towards locking up an NCAA bid.
Harvard can clinch at least a share of the Ivy League title this weekend with home games against Princeton and Penn, beginning with the Tigers tonight. Princeton handed the Crimson their only league loss to date a couple weeks ago but with Kyle Casey playing better of late it's going to be much tougher for Ian Hummer and company this time around. And the matchup between Butler and Valparaiso could be a preview of a Horizon League title game, but the Bulldogs need a win to lock down the two-seed in the conference tournament. A loss to the Crusaders, who may have Kevin Van Wijk (sprained knee) back, would open the door for Cleveland State to swipe the spot with a win on Saturday.
Top 25 Games
9:00 PM (10) Marquette at West Virginia (ESPN)
NCAA Division I Games
7:00 PM Columbia at Yale
7:00 PM Princeton at Harvard
7:00 PM Pennsylvania at Dartmouth
7:00 PM Cornell at Brown
7:00 PM North Florida at Jacksonville (ESPN3)
7:00 PM Canisius at Manhattan
7:00 PM Loyola (MD) at Rider (ESPN2)
7:00 PM Butler at Valparaiso (ESPNU)
8:00 PM Niagara at St. Peter's
9:00 PM Fairfield at Iona (ESPNU)
9:05 PM Idaho at Utah State (ESPN3)