PREVIEW: Rider steams as regular season ends

By Benjamin Shinault

The buzzer sounded and Rider men’s basketball walked off the floor at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall with a loss to Saint Peter’s hanging over its bowing heads. 

Fast-forward to now, the 2024 Broncs are in the midst of a six-game winning streak and are looking to lock down a first-round bye in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament. 

Rider secured a first-round bye last season but were unable to do much with it, as the team was tackled by the 10-seeded Saint Peter’s Peacocks 70-62. A new opportunity has dawned for the Broncs, who are ready to face it.

The duality of a season

It has been quite the season thus far for Rider, getting into a tumble as it faced a seven-game losing streak back in November and early December. Since then, the team slowed the roll as it started to engage with MAAC opponents, with an 11-8 record as of March 5. 

The Broncs had an eerily similar occurrence last year as they went on an eight-game winning streak late in the season. 

This year, they have a legitimate chance to bring that momentum into Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall as their final matchup of the regular season is against the Peacocks, who are slotted in at third in the MAAC. 

With Rider slowly working its way through the higher ranks of the conference standings, it has landed among the leaders of statistical categories such as rebounding, free-throw shooting and overall offense. 

The Broncs have been adamant on getting the mid-range going as well as trying to get the ball in the hands of their forwards down low in the paint. A big piece to the overall climb in offensive sovereignty by Rider has been senior forward Mervin James.

The marvelous Mr. Mervin 

On March 4, James was named MAAC player of the week for the third time this season. His two games this week against Niagara and Cansius averaged 22.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and shot above 50% from the field at 51.7%. 

James, along with his teammates, has been playing at a high level recently to ensure the Broncs have a chance at clinching the first round bye. 

He’s the first Bronc to receive the honor multiple times in the same season since Dwight Murray Jr. did back in the 2021 season two times.

James ranks high in the MAAC in multiple categories: scoring with a season average of 19.2 points, placed at eleventh in rebounding averaging 5.9 per game and top ten in shooting percentage from the field at 52%. 

An interesting tidbit about James’ offensive greatness is that the Broncs haven’t lost a game in which James has scored 20 or more points since Jan. 5, when the Broncs lost to Quinnipiac. As a whole this season,  James has scored at least 20 or more points in 17 games. 

The road ahead 

The Broncs have one game left this regular season, as they look to win one more at the Alumni Gym. With the MAAC tournament looming, it may be easy to look ahead to that some players want to take care of business first. 

“We haven’t thought about the tournament at all,” Head Coach Kevin Baggett said. “We have another game to play … we will get to the tournament when it comes time, we are just worried about winning.” 

During the six-game winning streak that the Broncs are riding, it is important to mention the defense that Rider has displayed. Over the stretch, the Broncs’ defense, which is ranked at ninth in the MAAC, held their opponents to averages of 65 points per game, which would be enough to put them in second place in the tournament. With this, it’s easy to say that Rider has changed mightily from the beginning of the season to now.

“You want to play your best basketball going into the tournament, which I think we are,” Baggett said. 

Early on in the season, the Broncs dropped seven straight games and at some times, the locker room was not filled with high energy; instead, it consisted of anguish, that same feeling and lack of energy surely present during Rider’s elimination in the quarterfinal. 

“I feel like the guys from last year learned from their mistakes from last season,” graduate student guard TJ Weeks Jr. said. “They told all the newcomers about the mistakes that they had last year and for us this year to build upon them.”

Heading into the MAAC Tournament, it will be an almost completely new squad rolling onto the floor, which can turn out to be a positive for the Broncs as eight out of the 15 players were not on the team last season. Rider has a new team with new expectations. 

Seeding scenarios

Seeding is always critical when it comes to tournament play. As of March. 4, the Broncs are fifth in MAAC, which would give them a bye in the first round.  

The MAAC Tournament will be played at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey, from March 12 to March 16.   

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