Broncs’ rollercoaster season: What’s next?

By Austin Ferguson

With just nine games to go in the 2019-2020 season, the men’s basketball team’s campaign can only be described as a rollercoaster.

Rider found a way to win seven of its first nine games, mostly against non-conference opponents, but a rough patch in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) portion of the schedule had all but erased the Broncs’ early-season success.

Rider’s play in the non-conference schedule showed signs of being a top contender for its first MAAC championship, highlighted by a victory over the University of Vermont on Nov. 24 that included a 17-0 run in the second half.

After a close call in a 74-64 win over Marist in the MAAC opener on Dec. 16, Rider was 7-2 and sat atop the conference standings at that point. Like all rollercoasters, the drop-off was ahead.

The Broncs went back on the road after their win over Marist to take on Temple and Wisconsin to wrap up the 2019 calendar year and lost both matchups, scoring a season-low 37 points against Wisconsin on New Year’s Eve.

Rider started the 2020 portion of the season with a close but strong win against Siena on Jan. 5. After that, the Broncs lost four of their next five matchups, with their only win in that span coming against Marist on Jan. 12.

Though Rider did lose four conference match-ups in the month of January, all but one of those losses were by single-digit margins. The first of the Broncs’ four January losses came on the road against Quinnipiac on Jan. 7, 80-61.

Rider’s Jan. 10 loss to Iona was its only home loss of the season so far, falling 69-66, though the closest of the Broncs’ January losses came on Jan. 17 against Niagara, 70-68, off the back of a game-winning three from Niagara guard Marcus Hammond.

The new-year skid brought the Broncs’ MAAC record to 3-4. However, Rider still had the upper echelon of the standings in its sights with three games left in the first month of 2020, two of which were at home.

The Broncs struggled in its matchup against a surprise MAAC contender in Saint Peter’s on Jan. 24, but strong defensive stands in the second half were able to help Rider get back into the win column with a 70-66 victory. The Broncs went on the road two days later and clinched a strong 67-53 win over Manhattan, which enjoyed a first-place standing in the MAAC earlier in the month, without trailing a single time in the contest.

Rider finished off the trifecta with a 68-52 home victory over Fairfield on Jan. 31 to bring its MAAC record to 6-4. Half a game behind first-place Monmouth, the Broncs headed to West Long Branch, New Jersey, for a Feb. 2 matchup with the Hawks.

The game between Monmouth and Rider was, much like the Super Bowl later that same day, a close one. It was the Hawks, however, that surged ahead in the final minutes to take the game, 90-84, bringing the Broncs to their current state.

The Broncs entered this season after losing two players to graduation (guard Anthony Durham and forward Karamoko Cisse) and five more players to transfers (guards Jordan Allen, Noah Buono and Ryan O’Leary and forwards Ahmad Gilbert and Devine Eke), with two of those seven losses (Durham and Allen) having started numerous games last season. Eke started one game in 2019.

Three freshmen and one graduate transfer are included in the list of additions to the Rider lineup for the 2019-2020 season. The three freshmen that joined the team all come in the form of Philadelphia natives in guards Christian Ings, Allen Powell and Khalil Turner.

Turner and Powell have seen action exclusively off the bench, with Powell getting regular minutes throughout the season. Powell’s shot does not seem to be fully developed quite yet, but his basketball mind certainly is, contributing smart play in the time he sees on the court.

Turner hasn’t found his spot in the rotation to date, though time will be the eventual sign to reveal his true potential. His 6-foot-7 frame is an advantage to him on the court, especially when he sees minutes at the guard position.

Ings, like his fellow freshman teammates, started the season off of the bench. A leg injury to redshirt senior guard Kimar Williams presented a chance for Ings to shine.

In Rider’s Nov. 17 blowout loss to Arizona State, Ings’ first career start was a bit of a silver lining. The Neumann-Goretti High School graduate contributed 10 points, three rebounds, three assists and two steals in the loss, though he looked rough around the edges with four turnovers during the matchup.

From there, Ings has started all but one game, averaging just under six points per game and just above two rebounds and assists per game this season.

Ings’ explosiveness at the rim and overall energetic play on both ends of the floor was evident from the get-go, but it was the progressive development of his three-point shot that brought him to the level he currently plays at. Ings is shooting 36% from beyond the arc, highlighted by four games where he made multiple threes.

The Broncs’ recent graduate transfer, Willy Nuñez, Jr., has been significant to Rider’s on-court cohesion all season. Nuñez’s versatility was shown in the Broncs’ preseason game against Slippery Rock, where he played minutes at every position with an exception to center.

Outside of his ability to play and guard multiple positions, Nuñez’s three-point shooting has also proven to be a valuable asset to the team. Though he may not show off the range that Jordan Allen had with Rider, Nuñez has the consistency to boast, showing off two games with four made threes and three games with three made shots from beyond the arc.

On top of the Broncs’ additions, Rider has seen the debut of redshirt freshman forward Tyrel Bladen and the return of redshirt sophomore guard Tyrei Randall, who sat out last season and was suspended for the first 10 games of this season for violating team rules.

Bladen has seen limited minutes but shows the promise of being a body that can bring physicality and athleticism on both sides of the floor. He has slowly found himself to be a part of the rotation as time has progressed, averaging about five minutes per game.

From his debut at Wisconsin, Randall had struggled to find his stroke and re-work himself into the rotation. He turned that narrative around with a 12-point performance against Saint Peter’s followed by a 16-point output at Manhattan, asserting on the court that Randall is very much still an important piece to the Broncs.

Rider’s new players have given it the support it needed in the rotation after the departures it took on at the end of last season. It is the Broncs’ starters, however, that take a large piece of the pie in keeping Rider competitive.

With Ings’ development aside, the core of senior guard Stevie Jordan, senior center Tyere Marshall and redshirt junior forwards Dimencio Vaughn and Frederick Scott has been the backbone for the Broncs this season.

The contributions of Rider’s ‘core four’ can be summed up by their career scoring marks. After Jordan scored his 1000th career point last season, Marshall, Vaughn and Scott all joined him during the year to bring the number of active 1000th point Rider scorers to four.

Jordan and Marshall’s senior campaigns have been business as usual, showing out in their final seasons.

Jordan is averaging 11.7 points and 4.2 assists per game while Marshall is averaging 12.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.

For Vaughn, the 2020 season is a defining one for his college career. After he set the MAAC ablaze in 2018 and earned all-MAAC first-team honors, Vaughn had an off-year in 2019, visibly having lost some of his step.

In the current season, Vaughn has silenced the doubters, proving that he has his bounce back.

Vaughn leads the Broncs in scoring with 14.3 points per game and couples it with 6.5 rebounds per game.

The 2020 season is Scott’s first season as the full-time starter, which is well deserved. Scott won MAAC Sixth Player of the Year in 2018 and found some starts in the 2019 season, averaging 12.1 points and 5.7 rebounds per game that year.

Scott has transitioned seamlessly into the full-time starting role, averaging 12.8 points and six rebounds per game this season.

With the squad that Head Coach Kevin Baggett has in front of him, the end of this season is pivotal to defining his tenure with Rider. The Broncs have failed to win multiple MAAC tournament games in the same season during Baggett’s tenure. As time has gone on, the window is slowly closing for this current crop of players to win the tournament. The Broncs’ best chance to find a berth in the NCAA tournament is now.

It seems that Rider has found its footing after a midseason skid. If the Broncs get back onto the track they were on to start the season, the MAAC is theirs to win.

Rider’s next game will be against Canisius on Feb. 7 at 7 p.m. in the Alumni Gym. The Broncs allowed 96 points to the Golden Griffins in their Jan. 19 matchup but were able to score 86 points of their own behind a 31-point performance from Marshall.

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