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Welcome back to the Trentonian's Full-Court Press blog. Yes, we're still alive, and with the 2015-16 season rapidly approaching, it's time to fire up the old blog for another season. Check back here throughout the year for updates on all things Rider and Princeton, including coverage of both the MAAC and Ivy League. Feel free to drop me a line on twitter @kj_franko ( or email

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Sydney Johnson taking his lumps in third year at Fairfield

Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson is struggling in his third season. Photo by John Blaine


LAWRENCEVILLE — Nearly three years ago, Sydney Johnson came within a single possession of coaching the Princeton Tigers to a shocking NCAA tournament win against fourth-seeded Kentucky.

Monday night at Rider, Johnson looked on as his Fairfield Stags lost to the Broncs, 73-65, dropping to 4-19 overall and 1-11 in MAAC play.

While the difference in stage and stakes couldn’t have been more stark, Johnson — a former standout player for the Tigers who was the 1997 Ivy League Player of the Year and part of the 1996 tournament team that upset UCLA — is a realist about his current squad.

“I’ve been very blessed in my coaching career that I’ve been a part of a lot of winning,” Johnson said, when asked if he was surprised by his team’s play. “Prior to this year, I had 80 wins over the past four seasons. As I looked at the team, I knew that wasn’t coming.”

At first glance, things certainly appear to be trending the wrong way for the Stags. After four years at Princeton, Johnson left his alma mater following the Kentucky game to take over at the Connecticut school, located about an hour north of New York City. He led the team to an appearance in the MAAC championship game in his first year, while last season the Stags earned a postseason berth in the CIT.

But things haven’t gone as smoothly this year. Fairfield is one of the youngest teams in the country, with four sophomores and a freshman in the starting lineup and only one senior in the rotation. Its average experience — a stat that weights a player’s years of experience against minutes played — is only 1.09 years, the 26th lowest figure in the nation.

“At the mid-major level, it’s really hard to win with young guys,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what people think, but I know that I’ve won at every level that I’ve been. Going back to high school, prep school, Europe, Big East, Ivy League, MAAC ... I’m a winner. I know what it looks like and I know how to get it going. I know at the same time that winning with freshmen and sophomores ... I haven’t been a part of that myself. You have to take your lumps a little bit.”

One silver lining for Johnson and the Stags is that, unlike in the Ivy League, they still have an opportunity to compete in the MAAC tournament. That creates a different coaching dynamic, where even after a difficult start there is still always something real to play for.

“That would be brutal, right?” he said, imagining his team in a no-tournament league. “I think it’s different. You used the best word. It’s different. Obviously we have the conference to strive for, specifically in our league, the No. 1 seed has not won the conference tournament in a while. It’s very sporadic. It gives hope not just to Fairfield but a lot of guys.”

Johnson has noticed some stylistic difference between the MAAC and the Ivy, as well.

“You have teams doing a lot of things throughout our league,” he said. “In the Ivy League it was just straight man-to-man. I love the fact that all the teams are more full-court, to be honest, both offensively and defensively. With all due respect to the Ivys, a lot of time it looks like a half-court game.”

While he certainly has his hands full with Fairfield, Johnson still keeps tabs on Princeton. He was teammates with both current Tigers head coach Mitch Henderson and assistant Brian Earl in the mid-1990s. Once Johnson got the Princeton job in 2007 — he got his start in coaching as an assistant to John Thompson III at Georgetown — he hired Earl for his staff.

“I track the team and keep in touch with Brian, not only about the team but about his family,” Johnson said. “There are about eight or nine guys on that team that we recruited, so I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t stealing an eye in terms of how they are doing. In fact, my wife (Jennifer) has the ESPN alerts on her phone, so if somehow I’m locked in to dealing with Rider, she’s in my ear chirping about how the Tigers have a six-point lead, a three-point deficit or whatever it is.”

As much as he still cares about the Tigers, Johnson hopes that as his team matures, his wife will be getting more alerts about Fairfield wins.


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