It took less than a week into the FCIAC basketball season for the first head-scratching return.
Fairfield Ludlowe 41, Danbury 39.
The Hatters, the defending conference champions, had lost their second straight game to fall to 1-2, against a team that recently has been undermanned but compensates by dictating tempo to narrow the gap.
And as the score indicated, the Falcons controlled the pace to pull the upset.
Danbury coach Casey Bock admitted a minor turning point had taken place seemingly before there was time to set a point to turn from.
“At the beginning of the year we were figuring a lot of things out,” Bock said. “Those two losses changed things. We started playing more man-to-man defense. We took a look at things.”
The Hatters so far seem to have figured things out just fine. They have won seven straight games by a minimum of seven points, and seem to have adjusted to the personnel changes since blowing a huge fourth-quarter lead and losing to Notre Dame-Fairfield in the quarterfinal round of the Class LL Tournament.
That came after a decisive win in the FCIAC final over Trumbull, with a rematch next month a very real scenario.
“We had to adapt to having three starters back taking leadership roles and having other players who took a little time to find their feet,” Bock said.
The Hatters won the league title for the first time in 26 years. They were prepared for the loss of leading scorer Jordan Brown, but figured to bring back the rest of the lineup. Then Diante Vines, a hot football prospect, opted to transfer to a private school.
The Hatters still returned more than almost any team other than Trumbull, led by Denali Burton, one of the state’s most versatile players. Burton scored 24 points and was named the most valuable player in the league final.
“He can play inside and out,” Bock said. “We like to get him touches inside. He’s very hard to stop.”
The player almost every opposing coach agreed was Danbury’s most underrated a year ago is point guard Javon Hernandez. He remains adept distributing the ball and leading a strong transition game.
Hernandez has continued to flourish this winter.
“He’s our most underappreciated player,” Bock said. “Denali is such a physical presence that they sometimes overlook Javon a little bit. He has run the team for three years.”
The third returning starter is Keyon Moore, who has stepped into a more prominent role.
“He has been great in the backcourt,” Bock said. “He can play both positions.”
Jaden Cook, a defensive stopper, and Jah Joyner, coming off a strong year for Danbury’s football team, are the two new starters. Taylor Heady, a reliable rebounder, is the first player off the bench, while Bock has been using a number of sophomores as part of his rotation.
“It has been fun,” Bock said. “The kids have been working hard to get better and we’re becoming a good team.”
Bock said the Ludlowe loss provided some insight best learned earlier rather than later.
“At the beginning of the year we thought we’d be a zone team, but we play man to man well and guys who can get into a defensive mentality,” Bock said. “We’re continuing to become a good defensive team. If we can defend and rebound we will be a good team.”
The Hatters have a difficult second-half schedule. They play Greenwich on the final night of the regular season, but also have to face Wilton, Fairfield Warde and several other possible playoff teams.
“We have to get better finishing games,” Bock said. “If we can finish we will be in good shape. And we are still going to get everybody’s best game. And the way the league is, there are no easy games.”
• The league goes back to a Tuesday and Friday schedule, which will be welcomed by all coaches. The FCIAC and SWC, because of a shortage of officials, agreed to each play half their games on Monday and Thursday nights. FCIAC crowds have been down this year, in large part because of the loss of weekend games.
• Fairfield Warde is the place to be this week. Coming off a loss at Wilton, the Mustangs return home to face New Canaan and Danbury.
• With a large middle class characterized by narrow talent gaps, it has been common for teams to go on runs and slides that have changed their outlooks. Brien McMahon was a bland 3-4, but last week won three straight games, downing Stamford and Ridgefield to make a climb up the standings and give themselves a pair of possible important tiebreakers.
Stamford, considered a possible title contender, lost three of four games and dug itself an instant hole. It has won three of the last four games and is hoping to gain some traction.
St. Joseph won five in a row and was an early surprise team but has seen the glitter dull just a bit with losses to Wilton and Danbury.
No. 1 Trumbull (10-1, 7-0) vs. No. 8 Ridgefield (6-4, 3-3)
No. 2 Danbury (8-2, 7-1) vs. No. 7 Brien McMahon (6-4, 3-3)
No. 3 Wilton (8-2, 5-1) vs. No. 6 New Canaan (7-3, 4-3)
No. 4 St. Joseph (6-3, 5-2) vs. No. 5 Fairfield Warde (6-3, 4-2)