By Shaun Chornobroff
Rider men’s basketball opened its Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) competition with a chance to make a statement.
The return of graduate student forward Dimencio Vaughn after a brief voyage to Ole Miss to the hard-working, grueling nature of MAAC basketball, alongside preseason All-MAAC first-team guard Dwight Murray Jr. and a litany of scoring options was supposed to be the formula for the Broncs to announce that after a poor 2020-21 season, they were ready to be back among the MAAC’s elite.
Instead, the Broncs were easily dismantled 80-54 against the runaway favorites for the conference in Iona on Dec. 3 before getting handily beaten 79-67 two days later against the Marist Red Foxes, who were third in the conference’s preseason poll.
All in all, the Broncs did not look the part against two of the MAAC’s top-tier programs.
Unfazed and exceedingly confident in the talent of his team, Head Coach Kevin Baggett admitted his team has plenty of work to do before traveling to face Rutgers on Dec. 18, but offered another reason for the duo of poor showings over the weekend.
“We’ve been on the road three weeks, we’ve played every other day or every two days wearing everybody out. … We’ve had a lot of different things, guys play a lot of games and we’ve just played two SEC schools, that physically wears down” Baggett said. “We’ve been on the road, that’s all on me.”
The Dec. 5 loss against Marist was Rider’s first home game since Nov. 14 and wrapped up a seven-day span in which Rider not only played two Southeastern Conference (SEC) schools but also faced an Iona team that recently upset a ranked Alabama squad before playing a decent game against No. 8 Kansas.
Preceding that four-game gauntlet was a trip south of the border for the Cancun Challenge where the team was missing senior starting center Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson due to issues with his visa.
Exhaustion, along with constant travel since the middle of November is a definite possibility for the poor performances. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason to worry.
The strength of this Rider team was obvious in the preseason. These guys were going to score, and they were going to do so often and efficiently. Yet, that hasn’t been the case so far, as many of the exotic weapons in Baggett’s offensive arsenal have yet to truly reach their potential.
After being one of the MAAC’s breakout stars last season, Murray has seen his scoring output drop from 15.8 points per game to 14.2. While that drop-off isn’t overly significant, it’s the drop in shooting efficiency which gives cause for concern. In the 2020-21 season, Murray shot 46% from the field and 41.7% on 3-point attempts. This season, the senior’s percentages have dropped to 40.3% from the field and a whopping low of 29.5% on attempts beyond the arc.
This is a trend that trickles down to the rest of Rider’s significant scoring options.
Allen Powell established himself as one of the premier snipers in the MAAC last season. Murray’s backcourt complement shot an astounding 44% on his 3-point attempts. The junior guard hasn’t been able to replicate last season’s exploits. Far from it, converting on only 27.8% of his 3-point attempts.
From 2017-2020, Vaughn shot 47.6% from the field and earned numerous all-conference honors. The graduate student was virtually unguardable in the loss against Marist, dropping 28 points on the 10-of-16 shooting. Even with the recent display of scoring prowess, Vaughn’s efficiency has been down compared to his past years in a Rider uniform, with the forward’s field goal percentage numbers and 3-point percentage numbers currently at a career-low.
While Mervin James was not a member of the team last year, the junior’s arrival was highly touted. A second-team all-conference selection in the ASUN, James was supposed to be another consistent option for this Rider offense. He hasn’t quite hit his stride in 11 games, only making 32.6% of his attempts. A cataclysmic drop from the 47.7% the 6-foot-7 forward shot in his first two seasons at North Alabama, and in Rider’s most recent game, James came off the bench.
Despite the scoring struggles, Baggett’s confidence in his scorers has not wavered.
“I’m not worried about anybody, we’ll be fine. You all can worry about it, I’m not,” Baggett said to the media after the disappointing loss against Marist.
Exhaustion and a gauntlet of tough competition could be the reason for Rider’s struggles. However, if the side effects of that issue, like inefficient scoring, don’t fix themselves over the next few weeks, Rider’s glorious rebound from last season’s nightmare won’t be a rebound. It will be a repeat.