By Josh Veltrie
With one of the hardest non-conference schedules the men’s basketball team has ever seen, the Broncs have a difficult start to a season where the team is looking to capture its first MAAC postseason championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Rider is starting off the season today at Mississippi State, which is ranked 18th in the country according to the AP Poll.
“The expectations around here are pretty high,” Head Coach Tommy Dempsey said. “We really tried to challenge ourselves with our non-conference schedule.”
After Mississippi State, Rider has its first home game of the season against Lehigh on Nov. 16 before traveling to Virginia on Nov. 19. Following Virginia, the team has its toughest task of the season as they face No. 4 Kentucky on Nov. 21. The Broncs will be looking to have a signature win in one of their first four games by the time the team departs the prestigious Rupp Arena.
“The crowd is going to be awesome [at Kentucky], but I’m sure once the tip goes up we will be ready to play,” Dempsey said. “These non-conference games are crucial for our RPI (Rating Percentage Index) ranking and help us get into a post season tournament if we don’t get into the NCAA.”
The games versus Virginia and Kentucky are the first contests of the Cancun Challenge; Rider will play two games in Mexico against Florida A&M and either Sam Houston or Oral Roberts.
The Broncs have an experienced group of players coming back from last year’s young squad. Leading the team at point guard will be Pre-season Player of the Year in the MAAC, senior Ryan Thompson, who averaged 18 ppg, 6.5 rbg and 3.3 apg last season while being named to the First Team All-MAAC.
“A lot of people are expecting us to win a majority of our games this year,” Thompson said. “We have a No. 3 ranking in the conference, which is good, but we know we can be better than that.”
Expected to start next to Thompson in the backcourt will be junior Justin Robinson, while sophomore Novar Gadson, junior Mike Ringgold and sophomore Jermaine Jackson will start in the frontcourt. Both Gadson and Ringgold were named to the Pre-season All–MAAC Third Team. Gadson was named to the MAAC All-Rookie Team last season.
This season will mark the first time Dempsey has not had a freshman in the starting line-up, something he believes will be a big factor down the stretch.
“Last year I don’t think we had great offensive chemistry just because we had so much youth on the court that hadn’t played that much together,” Dempsey said. “With all of those players having all of the off-season and pre-season to practice together, I think it will really improve us offensively.”
Junior guard Jhamar Youngblood, a transfer from Monmouth, is going to start the season as Rider’s sixth man and should help bring some offensive firepower to the court, according to Dempsey.
“I have six players I feel comfortable starting right now,” Dempsey said. “The sixth man in basketball is a crucial position and it is very important to have that spark plug off the bench. Right now, Jhamar gives us that.”
Also coming off the bench for Rider will be sophomore forward Brandon Penn and junior guard Patrick Mansell, who will be looking to replace the production behind the arc his older brother, Harris, provided before he graduated last spring.
Senior forward Robbie Myers can also expect to see some playing time as he joins Thompson as the only other senior on the team.
Looking to break into the rotation and get some playing time will be the three freshmen Dempsey brought in this year: guards Carl Johnson from Philadelphia, and Jonathon Thompson from Orlando, Fla., and center Dera Nd-Ezuma from Nigeria. The Broncs also added sophomore guard DeShawn Mitchell, a transfer from UNLV, but he won’t be eligible to play until next year.
With powerhouse Siena only losing one starter and the same going for Niagara, Rider is going to have to perform at a very high level once conference play starts on Dec. 6 against Marist in order to keep up with conference rivals.
“Playing defense is going to be our priority all season,” Thompson said. “We know we can score, it’s just a matter of getting stops.”
Siena is currently ranked third in the pre-season rankings of CollegeInsider.com’s Mid-Major Top 25. Niagara is 10th in the poll with Rider being the third MAAC team in the top 25 at 19th.
The Saints also received 112 votes to be in the AP Top 25 of the country. The only other team that has more votes than Siena and is not in the Top 25 is Maryland with 171 votes. The Saints currently have more votes than big name schools such as Notre Dame, Syracuse, Florida State and UCLA, among others.
“Over the past couple years, I believe we have been at the same talent level as Niagara and Siena but we just didn’t have as many veterans as they did,” Dempsey said.
Rider travels to Siena on Dec. 23 and to Niagara on Jan. 24. The Broncs then host Niagara and Siena on Feb. 8 and Feb. 24, respectively.
The Purple Eagles are the reason Rider did not compete in the MAAC Championship game against Siena last year. Niagara beat the Broncs in a gut-wrenching double overtime semi-final game. A buzzer beating, 30 ft., 3-point, bank shot by then junior guard Tyrone Lewis of Niagara sent the game into the first overtime.
“That game [vs. Niagara] definitely taught us that anything can happen in the MAAC Tournament and we will be using that game as motivation this season,” Thompson said.