HARTFORD -- Maybe the Fairfield Stags should save themselves the trouble and just stay home this season.

After perusing preseason college basketball previews, it would be easy to walk away expecting a subpar season for second-year coach Sydney Johnson's squad in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

Most experts seem to have forgotten senior guard Derek Needham's highlight career prior to a foot injury that sidelined him the final eight games last season and have omitted him from first-team consideration.

They also forecast the Stags to finish in the bottom third of the conference despite three straight 22-plus win seasons and the return of three senior guards.

So how do the Stags feel?

"It really doesn't matter what people think about us," said senior guard Colin Nickerson, who has combined with Needham to win 70 games and advance to two MAAC finals in three seasons. "We just know we have to come out and play every game. Nobody is going to take us light, nobody has ever taken us light.

"We know we always have to play with a chip on our shoulder and just go out there and play the best that we can."

"Preseason ranks don't get you titles," Needham added.

The Stags can start countering the naysayers Saturday night when they tip off against Central Connecticut State in the Connecticut 6 at the University of Hartford. Game time is 8 p.m. (10 p.m. tape delay on SNY).

"I want to make something very clear -- we had a more talented group of players last year, but I don't think we had a better team," said Johnson, whose club, along with Iona, was projected to win the MAAC last season. "Our players and our coaches have talked about that amongst ourselves. In the sense of what a team stands for, this team is terrific."

First-team all-MAAC forward Rakim Sanders and 7-foot center Ryan Olander are gone from a team that reached the MAAC championship game before losing to Loyola and made a deep run in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. However, Needham, Nickerson and senior point guard Desmond Wade return to anchor this squad along with junior forwards Maurice Barrow and Keith Matthews.

And maybe the best part about the veteran cast for Johnson is they enter the season of the same mindset. Despite all the talent last year, the Stags were halfway through the season before they figured out how to co-exist on the floor.

"I really do believe about this team that the leadership and the team chemistry have a chance to be great," Johnson said. "I know that in college basketball, that's extremely important in terms of trying to win a championship."

It could be argued the Stags were a piece shy of winning a championship game against Loyola, but that piece returns in Needham, who was one of the top players in the MAAC two years ago.

"The big thing this year is leadership from the three guards and to make sure everyone plays hard and at the right pace," said Needham, who slid to off-guard when Wade arrived. "Coach Johnson has emphasized that so much to us that it comes natural now.

"Every practice, everyone brings it hard and competes hard."

A firm foundation is just what the Stags need with five freshmen being counted on for minutes, too. One member of that group, forward Coleman Johnson (knee), missed the Bridgeport exhibition and won't play in the opener, but should be back for the Preseason NIT (Nov. 12 at Virginia).

"They all do a good job and contribute in different ways," Needham said of his new teammates.

The Stags hope those contributions combined with the five veterans' play can keep them in the MAAC championship hunt once again.

"We have the same goal," Coach Johnson said. "As long as I am here, our goal is to win a championship and compete in the NCAA Tournament -- and that doesn't change."

wpaxton@ctpost.com; http://twitter.com/wspaxton; http://blog.ctnews.com/paxton/

About the Stags

Coach: Sydney Johnson, 2nd season (22-15)

Conference: Metro Atlantic Athletic

Last season: 22-15, 12-6 MAAC (T-3rd)

Returning starters: G Derek Needham, 5-11 Sr. (11.8 ppg, 3.4 apg); G Desmond Wade, 5-8 Sr. (6.3 ppg, 3.0 apg), F Maurice Barrow, 6-5 Jr. (9.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg).

Notes: The Stags have played in two of the past three MAAC championship games. ¦ Needham was a preason All-MAAC selection. ¦ Johnson led Princeton to the NCAAs two seasons ago. ¦ G Colin Nickerson and F Keith Matthews return off big postseason performances, averaging 9.7 and 8.8 ppg, respectively, in seven games. ¦ Barrow was sixth in the MAAC in FG percentage (.509) and 13th in rebounds (6.0). ¦ Freshman Josip Mikulic had eight rebounds in an exhibition against UB. ¦ Fairfield does not play its first home game at the Webster Bank Arena until Dec. 7 (Canisius). ¦ The Stags are in the Preseason NIT and open at Virginia on Nov. 12. They will play either Delaware or Penn on Nov. 13. ¦ Sophomore C Vincent Van Nes (toe/foot) remains out indefinitely.

Season opener: vs. Central Connecticut State, 8 p.m. Saturday (Connecticut 6 at University of Hartford)