Certainly, the 2005-06 edition of the Friars can be considered one of the youngest to take the floor in recent memory, with three freshmen seeing significant playing time – out of 8 or 9 players in the rotation. It's not an ideal situation, but to borrow from the Patriots' Bill Belichick – "it is what it is." This Friar team has talent, plays with abandon, and seems to have no fear. But it also is inexperienced, impatient, and technically raw in several ways. There will be nights that this team clicks "on," and others where they turn "off" and tune out. It is a learning process that only playing time and court experience can address.
The first road trip of the season to Fairfield is just a short jaunt down I-95, a little under two hours' time from Providence. The team departed for Trumbull, CT from campus on Sunday, spending Sunday night in a hotel not far from the Arena at Harbor Yard, where the Stags now play their home games. Fairfield has been in this facility since 2001, transitioning from 2500-seat Alumni Hall on their campus… which, according to Tim Welsh (who had his share of battles there while coaching at Iona), was one of the tougher places his teams ever visited. The Arena, however, is quite the place. At full capacity, the building can seat more than 10,000 fans, and it is used for concerts, as well as basketball and hockey (Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the American Hockey League). Yet, Fairfield struggles to gain any kind of home court advantage in the facility, with their largest crowds numbering just over 5000.
In fact, university officials have downsized the arena, moving the playing floor closer to one end and closing off the opposite end with partitions. Official capacity for Fairfield games now numbers just over 5200… and the Friars drew an announced crowd of 3777. Yet, with luxury boxes ringing the upper tier of the building… the Stags have a home they can proud of, even if they can't yet turn it into an on-court advantage. Imagine such a facility on the PC campus! The Friars will play in Bridgeport again, as they wrap up a 5-game deal (3 home, 2 away) with the Stags over a 7-year period. The final game of the contract will return to the Arena at Harbor Yard in 2012.
If first impressions mean anything, this Friar team shows no stress, no worry, and no fear. Yet, it's hard to call them fearless. Perhaps, it's simply because they don't know any better! There were no wide eyes for their first road game, and the entire team seemed to be very relaxed. That may be at least part of the reason for slow starts to their first three games of the season…these guys don't rattle easily. What needs to be learned is the difference between being relaxed for a game, and being relaxed but still playing with intensity. The lone Friar senior, Donnie McGrath, has become more vocal in this regard with his younger teammates.
Fairfield took the fight right to the Friars from the opening tap. The Stags did not start a player over 6-4 (due to an injury and a suspension), but their tempo and constant change of defenses negated much of the size advantage PC held. Fairfield used the old "UCLA" offense with a 1-4 look, isolating a guard up top, working off cuts and back screens. It was very effective for them, and a good look for the Friars to face, and to learn from. It allowed PC to get freshman Sharaud Curry into the game quickly, and while he thrived in the up-tempo pace, freshman Weyinme Efejuku struggled with his confidence throughout. Again, some nights the young players will look like all-stars, and others – they'll look like freshmen.
Jonathan Kale did not get off the bench at all, but part of the reason for that was the pace of the game. There just wasn't a spot for him to jump into. His time will come, he's not "in the dog-house," and he seems to understand most of what is being taught. Geoff McDermott, however, is already ahead of schedule. He is a steadying force in the paint, plays with savvy normally reserved for an upperclassman as he mans the middle against zone defenses, and is a physical presence this team has not had in several seasons – perhaps since the days of Ruben Garces patrolling the paint. Geoff's primary problem is learning patience… once he learns when to "turn it on and off," he'll be a real matchup problem for opponents. Much like Ryan Gomes was, he's too big for the quicks, and maybe too quick for the bigs.
A few other observations on the opening road game – Curry has tremendous potential, and his ability to penetrate is better than you may realize. Randall Hanke continues to score in the paint, but he struggled a little against the smaller Stags by putting the ball on the floor after receiving an entry pass into the post…usually to have it swatted away. And Donnie McGrath should simply shoot more. The role of "two-guard" requires an adjustment that he hasn't yet made. He is also forcing a lot of his passes, and his younger teammates aren't positioned where they need to be… hence, a few un-Donnie-like turnovers.
After holding off the late barrage of 3-pointers from Fairfield, the Friars took their 81-78 road win onto the team bus, and moved onto Westchester County Airport, where a late night chartered flight took them to Wichita, KS. The next classroom session comes Wednesday night at Charles Koch Arena, where the atmosphere will be decidedly different from Monday. The second game of this three-game road trip (a first for the team in six years) against Wichita State is the return engagement of a home-and-home series that began with the Shockers "shocking" the Friars at the Dunk 90-86 last December 11th.
Will there be another lesson learned?
On The Road with John Rooke: Fairfield
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