By Jordan Hall
Entering December, character is already being tested within the men’s basketball program. Head Coach Tommy Dempsey and his crew are treading water in uncharted territory. A program adept to success in years past has drifted into an early season slumber; an unexpected 1-6 start that has outsiders questioning team morale and the high expectations.
Rider’s early funk is mind-boggling considering the preseason buzz surrounding the team and its consistent winning – year in and year out – but with the performances in its first seven games, it’s not so shocking. Luck has played a factor, quality opponents have not made things easy and playing seven games in 16 days is tiring, but the Broncs’ own deficiencies have dug the hole they’re now fighting out of.
Dempsey is not dishing out excuses. A coach with a winning pedigree knows when poor basketball is being played. He acknowledges the lackluster start, as do his players.
“There’s three areas where we’re really falling short: defense, rebounding and turning the ball over on offense,” Dempsey said. “They’re three key components to winning and we’re not doing any of the three. We’re flawed defensively, we’re getting killed on the glass and we’re not taking care of the ball.”
If this storyline remains the same, winning won’t be an option.
“If those three areas don’t improve, we won’t win,” Dempsey said. “When it gets better, we’ll be fine. Until it gets better, we’re going to struggle.”
The biggest phase that needs to be addressed is defense, and for multiple reasons.
The Broncs are suited best for up-tempo, fast-paced basketball. That’s how they want to play and that’s how they’ll win. The makeup of Dempsey’s roster is guys who excel in the open court. Rider thrives when getting out and running, creating scoring through its speed and fast break opportunities while wearing down the opposition.
When Rider is perfecting that style, it’ll be tough outs, but none of it’s possible without strong play on the defensive side of the ball. The possibility of fast break chances are virtually eliminated without earning stops on defense. In order to play run-and-gun, you must string together stops and create misses, but with the Broncs giving up 81 points per game, a rank of 335th out of 344 Division I teams, Rider cannot play its preferred rhythm. Defense not only prevents the competition from scoring, but it generates the offense, a formula that has not been seen yet from the Broncs.
“If we continue at that rate, it’s going to be a long season,” Dempsey said. “We’re putting the focus on it and it’s a day-by-day process in becoming the defensive team we need to be.”
The lack of defense has forced Rider to play a large amount of its offense in the half court set, and it hasn’t been a strength. Losing four-year starting point guard Justin Robinson, a First Team All-MAAC selection last season, has hurt more than many thought it would.
“Your point guard play is so important,” said Dempsey. “It directs the ship. Our organization is not very good right now as we start offensive possessions. As Jon [Thompson] gets more experience at the point, Eddie [Mitchell] gets more experience at the point, that stuff will clean up.”
The Broncs’ new core has yet to gel and the offense has turned stagnant, consisting of too much one-on-one, drive and kick penetration.
“We really haven’t developed a great offensive chemistry yet,” Dempsey said. “We’re figuring out how to play together; it’s a new group.”
The other eye-opening issue has been rebounding, an aspect that helps build the defense. Rider doesn’t boast much height, but controlling the glass is more about effort and fundamentals: finding a man, putting a body on him and boxing out.
Rebounding kills the other team’s possessions and prolongs the offensive possessions. With the Broncs being outrebounded in all seven games, Dempsey is fully aware that Rider needs to crash the boards at a better clip.
“There’s a line I use with them with rebounding: ‘the more you go after, the more you get,’” Dempsey said. “We need to get every guy understanding that we don’t have a big, dominant center that’s going to get 15 rebounds a game, so we have to do it by committee. As we get out there and practice every day, we’re throwing the ball up on the glass and everybody’s chasing it. We’re putting a focus on it until we get better at it.”
During this sluggish November, Rider’s confidence has been pushed to the brink, but the beauty of the predicament? The Broncs are undefeated in conference play.
Through the 1-6 start, Rider’s MAAC record has remained untouched at 0-0, which is the most critical part of the year. As the Broncs open up league action this weekend against Manhattan and Marist, an opportunity opens for a fresh start.
“The message is, ‘keep at it,’” Dempsey said. “The stats don’t lie. The tape doesn’t lie. Here’s where we’re at. If we want to win, we’ll clean up these areas, and they want to win.”
There’s the saying, “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
Now, Rider’s season must follow that script.