By Ben Smith
The office of Rider’s men’s basketball head coach is one to behold. In it are many photos of past players, those who were good and those who were great, trophies paying homage to hard work and dedication, and the coup de gras, a signed Kings jersey from professional forward Jason Thompson.
Head Coach Tommy Dempsey, currently in his ninth season with Rider, has continued to build a strong foundation for MAAC basketball.Dempsey’s team was 23-11 last season. Now, he and his Broncs are looking to take the next step, a goal that remains the same year in and year out.
“Championships are won in October, not March,” Dempsey said. “[The team] has reached a point now where the goals never change. The job is to best represent this university in the [MAAC] tournament.”
This year’s championship will be played at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass., marking the first time the games will be held at a neutral location. Future 2013-14 championships will also be played in the Pioneer Valley, home to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
In 2011-’12, Rider will have a blend of veteran experience and incoming talent.
Senior Novar Gadson, the team’s top returning scorer, suffered a knee injury during the final game last season. Gadson is recovering from micro fracture knee surgery and his ability to play in the season opener may be in doubt.
“My knee is back to full strength due to the hard work and dedication of the training staff during the offseason,” Gadson said.
Gadson is a solid 3-point shooter, connecting on 13 of 37 attempts from long distance last season.
Brandon Penn and Jeff Jones also return as key seniors. Penn is a 6’8” forward with three-point shooting range while Jones, a 6’4” two-guard joins Rider as a transfer from Virginia, a product of the ACC. Junior Jonathon Thompson takes over the point guard duties and sophomore forward Daniel Stewart begins his second year in the starting lineup after earning MAAC Rookie of the Year last season.
Last year, Rider entered the MAAC tournament tied with second-place Iona for best conference record (13-5) and made it as far as the semifinals before losing to Iona 83-59. This year, Dempsey and his squad hope to get a jump on the competition when the NCAA clears the team to practice on Saturday, an event marked by the “Midnight MAACness” celebration tonight.
The Broncs have lost two starting players to graduation this year, but Coach Dempsey isn’t flustered by the prospect of playing new talents.
“Guys will get opportunities,” Dempsey said.
Freshmen vying for playing time will be Junior Fortunat, Charles Oliver, Eddie Mitchell and Mark Medley
Fortunat is a big-time forward out of Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia. The 6’9” freshman was rated an 88 by ESPN.com and garnered recruiting interest from Missouri, Illinois and Seton Hall.
“Fortunat is a long and active power forward,” wrote the website. “He is an explosive above the rim finisher around the basket when he receives drop off passes created by dribble penetration.”
Mitchell is a small but quick and athletic point guard. Oliver is sweet-shooting combo guard with scoring ability and Medley is a solid wing scorer who likes to get out on transition and score from mid-range.
Dempsey doesn’t reveal much as to what players he expects to stand out this season but offers coaching wisdom in a usual head coach tone.
“The really special guys help their teams win a lot of games,” he said.
Dempsey has, in his own words, done well to “put the team in positions where they can play to their strengths.”
This year’s schedule includes two road games against potential top-25 teams: Pittsburgh (Nov. 13) and Florida (Dec. 9).
At this point in his career, Dempsey is not intimidated by traveling to play high profile teams that usually boast marquee stars.
“[We] have set up the schedule in such a way that shows they can play with anybody,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey has won 82 games in the last four seasons, the most ever in the team’s coaching history for that span.
“We’ve got the program to a level where people can watch their team or favorite players on a national scale.”
Dempsey’s lofty expectations have already begun to pay the school’s program huge dividends. The MAAC and ESPN announced a six-year rights agreement extension for enhanced coverage of MAAC men’s and women’s basketball on Monday, according to the league’s website. The deal features a record 80 nationally televised appearances, an increase of 25 percent from last year’s schedule and the most ever for the MAAC.
Rider is scheduled to first appear on the ESPNU network when it plays at Iona (Jan. 20) at 10 p.m. On Dec. 14, Rider will face Princeton in Alumni Gym for the first time in the program’s history. Considering the towns’ close proximity to one another, this game could present bragging rights.
“I have individual goals I [want to] accomplish as a college basketball player,” Gadson said. “But my focus isn’t on that, it’s on the team and winning so I will do whatever it takes to get it done. We are more than ready for the 2011-2012 basketball season.”