Last March the Fairfield stags were poised to roll through their conference tournament, use their solid defense to clamp down on some overrated big conference school, and pull off another upset to get to the Sweet 16. I had them basically penciled into the Sweet 16, except they never got that far. They didn’t even make the NCAA tournament after losing on their home court to future Gopher opponent St. Peter’s. It was a shocking blow to a team seemingly built for a decent tournament run. After losing 3 of their first four games, they reeled off 22 wins in 23 games until it all ended abruptly. Oh sure, they knocked off a decent Colorado State team in the NIT and barely lost to Kent State, but at that point it didn’t matter.
Fairfield returns a lot of experience from last year’s team. They lost their coach to Providence, so there will inevitably be a period of adjustment before everyone is on the same page, but they also gained a big name transfer. Rakim Sanders averaged in double figures in his three seasons at Boston College, though there were some major efficiency issues. He shot only 40% from the field in his final year there. So far, his game has been so good for the stags. He is averaging 20 points per game on 50% three-point shooting and six rebounds per game. Statisically, this has been far and away his best season, which has something to do with the level of competition (a bad Providence team and Quinnipiac don’t quite equal the ACC), and may show that he is maturing as a player, or he has gotten lucky. He’s never shot better than 38% from the three-point line, so his shooting may eventually even itself out. Regardless of how the rest of the season goes, he has started hot and will need to be Minnesota’s primary focus on defense.
Most low to mid-major teams have that one guy, usually a Division I transfer, that they rely on, and the lack of depth and options on the offensive end limits how good they can really be as a team. Then there are teams like Fairfield and Cornell a few years ago that have more depth, enough depth to win some games they otherwise shouldn’t. The Stags have more weapons than just Sanders, and it starts on the inside with Ryan Olander. At 7’0”, he is taller than many of the centers in the Big Ten, but he sure is skinny. As we all saw in the South Dakota State game, some of the smaller, more mobile centers give the Gophers fits because Minnesota’s interior players are too slow. Seven footers just can’t move fast, and while his height is an advantage against small teams, it could be a disadvantage against the Gophers. Maurice Barrow is a 6’5” forward who is scoring 17 points per game without even attempting a three-point shot. Derek Needham is Fairfield’s most important returning player. At 5’11”, he is averaging 12 points, five rebounds, and more than four assists per game. His shooting has been only 33% from the field, which won’t be good enough against a Big Ten team.
Fairfield didn’t make a lot of headlines last year because they aren’t a fun team to watch. They also aren’t a fun team to play because they make their opponents earn every basket. Their defense ranked 22nd in the country last season, with the 15th best field goal defense, and they forced the 18th most turnovers. Their defense would have been even better if they had kept their opponents off the offensive glass, but this was their one weakness as opponents rebounded their misses 31% of the time. Instead of getting better in this area, they got much worse, and now rank 297th in the country. The Gophers, on paper at least, are built for offensive rebounds. As the Gophers found out against South Dakota State, forcing a miss doesn’t matter if you can’t get the ball back. The Stags don’t give up many outside shots, which could mean they have excellent perimeter defense, they are weak defensively on the inside, or both or neither. For the occasionally poor shooting Gophers, I’d count it as a positive that Fairfield allows scoring from somewhere other than behind the three-point line.
Rakim Sanders, as you might imagine from a player averaging 20 points per game, has helped the Stags’ offense. It has gone from dreadful to nearly acceptable. Despite a 25 point win last season, there were plenty of times that Fairfield couldn’t score, including a 48 point effort against St. Peter that knocked them out of tournament contention. Their offense ranked 248th overall, 322nd from behind the three-point line (they were nearly as bad shooting threes as the Gophers were defending them) and 283rd from the free-throw line. They were also very susceptible to having their shots blocked and passes stolen. They didn’t face the level of defensive pressure that the Gophers will throw at them, and controlling Minnesota’s fast break by hanging on to the ball will be very important for them. Through two games, they have substantially improved in every offensive area except free-throws, where they shot a Gopheresque 48%. They still commit too many turnovers, but at least they can make a few shots. Again, they have only played Providence and Quinnipiac, so it remains to be seen if these improvements will stick.
While beating Fairfield will be a good win, especially if the Stags manage to win another 25 games this season, a loss will be worse than a win would be good. Without an impressive opponent on the non-conference schedule, the Gophers don’t have a back stop if they let one of these early season games get away from them. The Stags have added a major scorer to what already was a good mid-major team. Another slow start against a solid defensive team could be trouble.