In the first of two home games this week, Northwestern hosts the Fairfield Stags of the MAAC at Welsh-Ryan Arena tonight as the Wildcats look to improve upon their 79-57 season-opening win over UMass Lowell on Friday.
The Wildcats had a rough first half against the River Hawks, and were losing at the intermission, but started to hit threes after the break and ended up blowing out UMass Lowell, which only transitioned over from Division II a few seasons ago. Now, Northwestern takes on another New England mid-major in Fairfield, which is 0-2 so far this season following losses to Yale and North Carolina, the latter of which the Wildcats will play in Kansas City next week.
The Stags are coached by Sydney Johnson, who played under former Northwestern coach Bill Carmody at Princeton and even coached the Tigers from 2007-2011. Carmody spent the 2014-15 season as a special advisor to Johnson's program before taking the open job at Holy Cross. Fairfield, in a preseason poll, was tabbed as the eighth-best team in the MAAC, ahead of only St. Peter's, Marist and Niagara.
Johnson's team is returning its top five scorers from last year's team that only won seven games (and lost 24). The key players to watch are senior Marcus Gilbert and sophomore Tyler Nelson, who averaged 16.4 and 10.2 points per game last season respectively as the only Stags to score in double figures.
Gilbert, a 6-6 forward, is a slasher who has a knack for getting to the hoop and drawing fouls. He has range but isn't terribly accurate from three-point range, as he converted on less than 33 percent of his long-distance attempts in the 2014-15 campaign. He's also a decent rebounder, even with his slight 185-pound frame, as he pulled down over five boards a game. Against the Tar Heels, he scored 25 points on 8-of-18 shooting.
The other big scorer for Fairfield is sophomore Tyler Nelson, a shooting guard who knocked down over 42 percent of his shots (both from the field and from three) in his true freshman season. He's also pretty small -- 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds -- but is a serious threat from beyond the arc and can really stretch a less-than-stellar perimeter defense like Northwestern's.
Fairfield, still, is a very bad mid-major team and should be an opponent Northwestern dispatches with ease. Even UMass Lowell was a halfway decent team in the America East in 2014-15, so the Wildcats' struggles on Friday could be somewhat justified, especially for a season opener. Any struggles they have tonight could be cause for concern.
Here's how to watch the Wildcats' second game of the season:
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