By Steven Eggert
After winning their last five games of the season to earn second place in the standings, the Broncs and their recent momentum travel to Massachusetts this weekend with the goal of winning their first MAAC championship.
Last season, Loyola (MD) defeated Fairfield 48-44 in their first title since 1994, while St. Peter’s shocked the MAAC by upsetting the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds to take home the conference title.
The Broncs (18-13, 12-6 MAAC) have ended as a top-three seed in the tournament for the fourth time in the last six seasons, but are the only MAAC team never to win a title since joining the conference in 1997.
In their only MAAC championship appearances in 2005 against Niagara and 2008 against Siena, they lost each game by more than 20 points.
Throughout the week, social media sites have trended the word “MAACachusetts” to promote the excitement for the upcoming conference tournament. Devoted Rider students have bought tickets to secure a seat on the bus trip to Massachusetts hoping to see their team advance to the big dance.
Head Coach Kevin Baggett is highly motivated to make Rider proud.
“I really want it for the administration, the fans, the alums,” Baggett said. “We want to go out and win and get to the NCAA tournament so people can be proud and feel good about being a part of Rider. When you’re a coach here, you understand they haven’t been there. It is a prideful place and you got passionate fans.”
According to teamrankings.com, the odds favor Iona with a 28.03% chance to win the MAAC. Loyola (MD), Niagara, Canisius and Fairfield each gathered between 10% and 17% of the votes while Rider ranked seventh with an 8.67% chance.
The Broncs have been disproving odds makers all year long. They were also projected by the MAAC in the preseason to finish seventh out of the 10 teams.
Despite these odds, junior guard Anthony Myles has been happy with the team’s performance all season long.
“I had a lot of confidence in this team,” Myles said. “I already knew what kind of person Baggett was- — . someone who knew what he was doing and I would be surrounded by a bunch of guys that were winners.”
Rider’s regular season was a roller coaster ride. With a new head coach, graduating key scorers from last season and implementing new philosophy, the team started the year 6-9 through the first 15 games.
Once the Broncs started playing more conference opponents, the Broncs finished the remainder of the season 12-4 and rode a season-ending five-game win streak from fifth to second place in the MAAC.
Even though they’ve ended the season on a hot streak, the focus is solely on the upcoming tournament.
“We have to forget about these wins because our record is 0-0 now and those games now really mean nothing,” Myles said. “We might be playing Fairfield, who we lost to twice. So I’m glad we won those games, but we have to move on and focus on our next opponent and do what we have to do in the tournament.”
One of the biggest improvements for Rider was in defense. After being 311th in the nation last season, giving up 74.6 ppg, only 63.8 ppg were allowed this season, earning the Broncs a ranking of 108th in the NCAA.
“If we put together three good days of defense, then we should be alright,” senior guard Jon Thompson said. “When playing back-to-back games, you can have bad offensive nights. So having good defense will definitely help us.”
This week, the All-MAAC teams were also announced. Thompson was named to the second team while Myles and junior forward Danny Stewart were named to the third team.
Though these three players have made a significant impact on the Broncs’ success, the team is filled with many guys who can impact the game.
“I think in this team, you can’t concentrate on one guy,” Baggett said. “In the Canisius game, Zedric Sadler hit big shots, Nurideen Lindsey played well, the night before it was Thompson and Stewart and the Charleston Southern game, Khalil Alford. Shawn Valentine, Sadler, Thompson and Dera Nd-Ezuma performed well defensively, Junior Fortunat too, so it’s being more of a team.”
With a regular season filled with ups and downs, Baggett is satisfied with the team’s progress.
“We did exactly what I hoped we would do — defend, rebound and play as a team,” Baggett said. “We’ll take second place. I’d rather have first, but for all we’ve gone through and where we’re at, I couldn’t be prouder of this team.”