By Carolo Pascale
Flashback to the night of March 9, down by one and pinned in a double team, senior guard Dwight Murray Jr. let a desperation shot fly. The ball floated in the air, and as it swished through the net, 7.5 seconds stood on the clock.
Just 7.5 seconds to close out one of the biggest games in Rider history. The Broncs did just that, and chaos ensued as Rider did the unthinkable.
First, they defeated the dreaded Iona Gaels, led by Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino. Second, they casted out the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Tournament quarter final curse that has haunted Head Coach Kevin Baggett for the last 11 years.
Those 7.5 seconds is all it took to show that the Broncs are a team not to be messed with and are ready to make a run at a MAAC Championship title.
And with the 2022-23 men’s basketball season just a few days away, the words of Murray, who’s clutch abilities crafted that moment of glory, have been ringing throughout the ears of the Broncs all off-season: “We’re going to be the No. 1 team next year.”
The 2022-23 Rider men’s basketball squad is shaping up to be one of the best the program has seen since 2018, when the Broncs were the regular season champions.
In the MAAC’s preseason poll, the Broncs were ranked third, just behind Manhattan and top-ranked Iona. Rider and Manhattan were seperated by just three ponts in the poll.
Three Broncs made preseason All-MAAC teams, highlighted by Murray earning his second preseason All-MAAC First Team honor. Senior guard Allen Powell and senior forward Mervin James both earned preseason All-MAAC Third Team honors, their first-ever all-conference nominations.
“We’re excited. We have a veteran group, we have a lot of returning players,” said Baggett. “We’ve got some new guys and some freshmen. It’s just a matter of just trying to bring everybody together and figure out where we go from there, and get ready for the start of the season.”
Of the returning players that Baggett mentioned, four of them were starters, those being Murray, Powell, James and MAAC Tournament standout, graduate student forward Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson.
Starting with the guards, Murray and Powell are still arguably the best one-two punch in the conference, and having this duo back is key to this team. When they are on and generating at their highest levels, there might be nobody that can handle them.
It doesn’t stop there at the guard position for Rider either, as it has arguably the strongest depth at the position in the conference, with the likes of returning defensive specialist junior Corey McKeithan coming off the bench. The guard group also has some newcomers in Rhode Island transfer senior Allen Betrand and graduate student Zahrion Blue from Division II Lincoln, the 2021-22 Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) Player of the Year.
Blue, a Princeton, New Jersey, native, offers a lot of experience and versatility to a team that lacked a player like that last year.
“I’d like to put him at the sixth man and try and get him to be the sixth man of the year,” said Baggett. “He was great at Lincoln, so I’m hoping that experience will translate over here, bringing him off the bench.”
The Broncs also have a lot of depth at the forward position. James, who was forced to play as a center last season due to injuries, will return to his natural power forward position this year, as will returning junior Nehemiah Benson. Along with them, Ogemuno-Johnson will have some help at the rim with redshirt senior Tyrell Bladen returning from an ACL tear that kept him out all last year. Rider also added to its post presence with a transfer from Wake Forest in junior Tariq Ingraham.
“Anytime we’ve had good posts, depth and good post presence, we’ve normally had good seasons,” said Baggett. “It’s important to have good balance across the courts, especially in the posts.”
With depth at nearly every position, the Broncs can roll up to a 11-man rotation with multiple options that allow Baggett, and the rest of the coaching staff, to figure out the best combinations to have on the floor at all times.
Part of that coaching staff now includes legendary Bronc Jason Thompson as a special assistant to the head coach.
“They should be sponges and learn from Jason and take everything that he’s saying to them because he’s been there,” said Baggett. “I coached Jason when he was here, and then him getting to the highest level, I can’t teach that. I’ve never been at the highest level in the NBA. He’s been a great value for the program.”
With a core of experienced players, as well as some possibly crucial incoming talent, the Broncs look ready to take the next step to contend for a MAAC Championship.
Rider will kick off its season on Oct. 29 in an exhibition matchup against Division III opponent Cabrini as the main attraction of Homecoming weekend, taking on the Cavaliers at 3 p.m.
After the exhibition, the Broncs will kick off the games that really matter on Nov. 8 when they take on Providence at 6:30 p.m.