By Carolo Pascale
OVER a month after Rider’s Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) quarterfinal loss to Saint Peter’s, men’s basketball Head Coach Kevin Baggett is still recovering.
The Broncs were the No. 2 seed in the tournament and had realistic championship aspirations.
“It was the best team that I’ve ever had,” said Baggett. “That was … devastation, disbelief. It was hard to put closure to a year that I didn’t see that happening. We let a lot of people down, and I wanted this team to finally get over the hump because I felt they deserved it.”
Now, six weeks after the defeat, the aftermath is taking its toll on the Broncs, as eight players have moved on from Baggett and the Broncs via the transfer portal and graduation.
Last season, Rider had arguably the most depth of any team in the MAAC. The Broncs had a strong supporting cast behind senior guard Dwight Murray Jr. and graduate student forward Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson, who has since graduated, that helped them land the No. 2 spot in the conference.
Those players included junior forward Nehemiah Benson, sophomore guard Adetokunbo Bakare, senior forward Tyrel Bladen, senior guard Allen Betrand and players waiting in the wings like freshman guard Kami Young., who missed the season with an injury.
But a new era of collegiate basketball has players entering the transfer portal left and right, and now, all five of those Broncs are no longer with the squad.
The transfer portal has become its own form of free agency, with 2023’s transfer numbers setting records. On March 13, the first day the portal opened, 173 players entered their name, a new record. As of April 18, 1,499 players have entered the portal, according to VerbalCommits.
As for the Broncs, Betrand, who started in 25 out of 30 games for Rider, still opted to leave the Broncs. Betrand filled a crucial need as the only wing option and brought some extra toughness and physicality with his 6-foot-5-inch, 200-pound frame.
Alongside Betrand was Bakare, who was lined up for a bigger role next season. The Newark, New Jersey, native was a plug-and-play shooter who stepped up in the Broncs’ win over Iona on Jan. 15, and was a spark plug for Rider throughout the season.
Bakare announced he was putting his name into the portal on April 13 via Twitter, citing his mental health as a driving factor for the decision.
“I had a meeting with my coach,” said Bakare in an interview with The Rider News. “I told them how I felt during the overall season. It was a lot of stress on me because I’m in my third year of college, and I feel I haven’t made my mark yet in the college basketball world.”
Compounded by the stress during the season, Bakare said that the decision came after an honest conversation with Baggett.
“He didn’t think I was gonna play that much next year. He basically asked me to enter the portal,” said Bakare.
Baggett said that it wasn’t personal, and that there just wasn’t going to be a bigger opportunity for him.
“In all fairness to all my players, if I don’t think that there’s going to be an opportunity for their roles to grow, I give them the opportunity to enter the portal,” said Baggett. “I try and look out for what’s best for each and every one of our guys that wants to play.”
Who’s still around
Coinciding with the loss of the five transfers, the Broncs are losing Murray, Ogemuno-Johnson, and graduate student Zahrion Blue, who are all graduating.
However, according to Baggett, senior forward Mervin James will be returning next year for his final year of eligibility. James, nicknamed “Mr. Consistent” by scoring double-digit points in 24 of 30 games, is a contender for preseason player of the year, as the MAAC as a whole was decimated by the transfer portal.
Also returning to the Broncs are senior guard Allen Powell and junior forward Tariq Ingraham, providing much-needed experience and leadership.
Junior guard Corey McKeithan will be returning to the Broncs as well and will most likely slot into a starting role with the departure of Murray. Three freshmen are returning as well.
Alongside the seven returning players, Baggett plans on bringing in freshmen and transfers to flesh out the rest of the roster.
“We want to make sure we have some experience and youth, and that’s just kind of the way we built our roster,” said Baggett. “I just want to make sure that we bring in the right pieces and hopefully make another run at this.”