By Benjamin Shinault
LAST season, Rider men’s basketball finished its regular season campaign at 16-14, earning the second seed in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference for only the fifth time in program history. During the highlight season, the Broncs went on a thrilling eight-game winning streak and had countless unforgettable moments in and outside of the Alumni Gym.
Soon enough, March crept up on the Broncs and they were set to face the Saint Peter’s Peacocks, who were just coming off a remarkable Cinderella run the year before in the NCAA tournament. With all this considered, the Broncs were in for a tough challenger.
Throughout the hard-nosed matchup against the Peacocks, the Broncs out-rebounded both offensively and defensively, but Saint Peter’s forced more turnovers and shot more efficiently. It was a close game all around, but the Peacocks had the advantage over the Broncs to give them the 70-62 victory. The Broncs, a year after going all the way to the semifinals, were sent home in the quarterfinals.
Fast-forward to now, the Broncs are coming off a MAAC preseason poll nomination of being the top team in the conference, and senior forward Mervin James was voted preseason player of the year. The Broncs are now ready and eager to bounce back and prove those predictions correct as the basketball season is just around the corner.
Kevin Baggett, who is now entering his 12th season as head coach of the Broncs, appreciates the nominations but still wants to prove it on the court this season.
“It’s an honor to have our league vote on us and vote on Mervin as preseason player of the year, but none of that matters at this point of the year. It matters what you get done at the end of the year,” Baggett said.
With these honors, however, the Broncs received a big target on their back and Baggett realized this.
“We understand that, with that, there are high expectations. Everybody is going to come after us every game, so we aren’t sneaking up on anybody, but we just got to get better day by day as a team, as individuals, as coaches, and let the rest of it take care of itself,” said Baggett.
Over the summer, the Broncs had quite a few transfers and many of their veteran players graduated. As a way to counter, Rider brought in five freshmen, and three players brought in via the transfer portal.
Baggett gave some insight into what he has seen in practice from his new-look Broncs.
“I think we have more ball handlers, I think we’re top to bottom more skilled, we’re young in some areas,” stated Baggett.
The Broncs’ last season had four freshmen, but outside of that Rider had a number of seniors and graduate students. With all of them no longer bearing the Rider colors, some players that remained from last season must step it up.
“The younger guys that were young last year are stepping up into a bigger role, those are changes,” Baggett said.
With five freshmen on this year’s Broncs squad, Baggett already has some expectations for his first-year players in terms of what he wants to see on the court.
“We have to get the younger guys to understand the value in basketball and playing defense, and more often than not, less is more at this point until they understand the speed, the level and the strength of playing division one basketball.”
Every Bronc this year has a role, and Baggett gave some context behind this vision for the team.
“All of them have a great value; they all need to stay in their role and understand their value, and I always tell the guys … be an All-American in your role, whether it’s big, small, medium or little role, just be great, be an All-American at that role and master that role so we can help you get a bigger role,” Baggett said.
With eight new players on the court for the Broncs, at times it might be tough to portray what you want out of your new team. Bagget’s rules were simple: “Get better every day, control what you can control, be coachable, be a great teammate and be a great team,” Baggett said.
With only 3-of-5 starters from the last time Rider suited up, the starting lineup for the Broncs this season will look different.
The starting lineup for the Broncs and many other things are still being critiqued as the days start to wind down until the first tipoff of the season.
Rider’s season opener will be on Oct. 28 at 1 p.m. in Alumni Gym against Georgian Court. The game against the Lions is an exhibition matchup, which will be a perfect opportunity for the Broncs to play around with the starting lineup and the bench rotation.
The regular season begin on Nov. 6 when the Broncs faceoff against the Immaculata Mighty Macs at home at 7 p.m.