By Charles Guthrie
It was a somewhat familiar sight on Sunday afternoon at Alumni Gym.
The Broncs came into a packed Alumni Gym tied for first place in the MAAC on Senior Day needing a win to keep in contention for the regular season crown. Rider easily handled Fairfield, and Siena also won its game, giving it the No.1 seed in the conference tournament because of a tiebreaker.
In Rider’s 2005 season finale, the Broncs knocked off Niagara 113-106 on Senior Day in front of a sold out Broncs’ Zoo to give them a split regular championship with Niagara taking the top seed because of the tiebreaker.
Don Harnum, Rider’s Athletic Director and head coach of the 2004-05 team, said there were quite a few similarities in the thrilling conclusions of each season.
“Three out of the last seven years we’ve won the regular season title and every year it was 13-5,” he said. “The other similarity is that in 2005 we shared the title with Niagara and the exact same thing happened: kept going down to break the tiebreaker and it went all the way down to the sixth seed and they were hosting. Well Siena wins the tiebreaker on the fifth seed and they are hosting.”
The 2004-05 squad made it to the championship round and lost to Niagara 81-59. Niagara had a double bye in the tournament, something Siena won’t have.
“We had to beat Niagara in front of 9,000 on its home court in the championship game with 8,700 rooting against us,” Harnum said. “So somebody is going to have to beat Siena on its home floor and our only opportunity would be in the championship game.”
To be a special team and have a realistic chance of winning a conference tournament, you need a star player, and both groups had seniors that played the role as best as they could.
Guard Jerry Johnson led Harnum’s crew, and senior forward Jason Thompson leads this year’s team.
“Jerry was still the best guard that I’ve coached since I’ve been here,” former Assistant, now Head Coach Tommy Dempsey said. “He was terrific and he was a senior and had all the leadership qualities. He was a bigshot maker and playmaker.
“I think we have that now in Jason; if you’re going to be a championship team, like both of those teams were, you’re going to need a star, and it really helps if your star is a senior and playing with a sense of urgency that this is [his] last time.”
In the 2004-05 run, Johnson was the face of the basketball program averaging 18.4 points per game and leading the team in almost every major offensive category.
He also was picked as first team All-Met for his senior year, Mid-Major MVP by CollegeInsider.com and was a three-time First Team All-MAAC honoree.
Thompson picked up his second First Team All-MAAC selection after averaging just over 20 points and nearly 12 rebounds per contest. This coming off a junior effort where he was one of only three players to average 20 and 10 for a season.
“When we signed him we thought we got a really good one and we were excited,” Harnum said. “I’d be lying to you if I thought this was going to happen, but we did think we really got a good one in Jason.”
The Lenape High School product was a lanky, raw freshman entering the 2004 campaign averaging just over nine points and seven rebounds a game. He’s emerged into a potential first round draft pick in June’s NBA Draft.
“I’ve matured and become more of a leader now than a role player,” Thompson said. “When I was a freshman, I was more of an energy guy. I did what they need me to do and tried to do the little things. We had leaders like Johnson and Robert Taylor who led the team.”
Dempsey, Harnum and Thompson all agreed that the atmosphere and environment of the program at Rider played a defining role in his development as a player. The former Rider headman said that his growth wasn’t in inches, but how he improved his skill set each season.
“A lot of these articles written about him say he had this huge growth spurt,” Harnum said. “I say, yeah, he did, his game got better and he put on weight. His game is the story, not his height. He was 6’9’’ as a freshman, he’s grown an inch, inch and a half, so it’s not all his height.”
The two regular season champions also have a big difference when it comes to their leaders. Johnson was a guard, so he handled the ball on every offensive possession, while Thompson didn’t have that luxury and needs the ball fed to him. Since Thompson couldn’t take the ball down court, senior guard Kevin Hickman, who walked onto the team in 2004, said that made this year’s team a more complete unit.
“It’s a little bit different having a point guard as your go-to-guy instead of a big man,” he said. “I think this made us a little more well-rounded because we have a big man and we need to be able to get him the ball so other guys need to score when he’s double-and-triple teamed.
“Jerry could just take the ball down and make plays for himself. We kind of leaned on him a bit more as with Jason we have had other guys step up and take on the scoring role.”
Rider had four All-MAAC selections with sophomore guard Ryan Thompson making the second team, junior guard Harris Mansell making the third team and freshman forward Mike Ringgold earning a spot on the rookie squad to go along with Jason Thompson’s first team honor.
In games against Rutgers, Iona and Cal State Northridge, Jason Thompson combined for 34 points and Rider still won all three matchups.
Against the Scarlet Knights in Piscataway, Ryan Thompson attacked the basket with reckless abandon and finished with a game-high 19 points. In the other two games, Mansell led the charge with a career-high 21 points in each, and Ryan Thompson was right behind him in the scoring department.
“I think this year’s team is more of a well-balanced team,” Bud Focht, Rider’s Sports Information director for the past 27 years, said. “Even though we have an NBA player, if you took Jason away, the team would be better than the 2005 team if they took Jerry away. That team was Jerry Johnson’s team. There were a lot of role players, but no standouts. Everything depended on him. Jason had a couple of games where he didn’t do well, but we still did all right.”
Outside of Johnson, Jason Thompson was the only other player to receive recognition on the Broncs that went 19-11 just a few years ago, from the voters as he was named to the rookie team.
While Thompson made a big leap, senior guard Kamron Warner has also been a key contributor off the bench and has shown that he can give the offense a jolt when his number is called.
“It’s great to give kids opportunities; you just hope they will reward you,” Dempsey said. “I thought he had a great year and it became more and more obvious throughout the season that he was outplaying most of our guards in practice, so I said to the coaches that he deserves a chance to play. I gave him that chance, and he’s taken it and run with it.”
A closer look at the style of offense run by each team shows a difference in their approach. Even though there’s only a three-point difference in points per game, Harnum said his MAAC regular season championship squad ran more of a half court offense in comparison to this year’s transition offense.
Dempsey stated that he has handled the program outside of the gym the same exact way as his predecessor, but agrees that they have contrasting styles of offense.
“Don and I run the program off the court the exact same way as it’s been since I’ve been here,” he said. “The style of play is totally different. We play a lot faster and we press a lot more than we did (in 2004-05). Everything that team did worked for them, and what we do works for our team.”
In terms of experience, Harnum said his team has the advantage as the team was older and had more seniors. Johnson played alongside senior backcourt mate Taylor for three years; they also had senior center Steve Castelberry and junior forward Paul Johnson in the starting lineup.
They might be lacking in age, but Harnum felt this year’s core has been maturing by playing high profile basketball the whole season.
“I think the fact that they have been on the front burner all year has given them experience,” he said. “This team had a 10-game winning streak and played a lot on national television. This team played under more MAAC tournament type pressure games and I think Tommy did a really nice job of challenging this team.”
The 2004-05 team was picked to finish fifth and didn’t have high expectations from the media to be a championship contender. The 2008 Broncs have left their stamp on the league as the only team in the conference to beat every team.
Warner notices it and said this team has a bit of a different feel than the last Rider team to win a share of the MAAC regular season crown.
“We definitely carry ourselves with a swagger,” he said. “We know how good we can be and I think we are one of the best teams, if not the best team. You have to carry that swagger as a team if you want to be a champion.”
After losing three straight, Rider has won three in a row and will open the tournament on Saturday when they play the winner of the Iona versus Canisius game.