By Jordan Hall
For the men’s basketball team, it has been six years since the program has been without one of the Thompson brothers gracing the hardwood. In its first attempt, the Broncs are right in the thick of the conference race heading down the stretch.
This season, like many others, the MAAC resembles a heavyweight-boxing match. As a team, you’re going to take your punches and receive some bruises, but the squad with the endurance and bounce-back mentality after a shivering blow or struggling round will ultimately survive.
“It looks like there’s six or maybe even seven teams who could have a chance to win the league,” head coach Tommy Dempsey said.
In 2010-2011, the MAAC has shown great balance, and in a conference with such parity, a team must shake off its hits and rebound the following night. Rider has found a way to accomplish this, a critical reason it’s 7-4 in league play, good for a third-place tie in the MAAC after being predicted to finish fifth.
The Broncs have won nine of their last 12 games en route to an overall record of 15-8, an impressive mark coming from their difficult non-conference schedule. More importantly, Rider has not fallen in consecutive MAAC games except for its back-to-back losses to first-place Fairfield and Iona, most likely the Broncs’ toughest challenger apart from the Stags.
“I think that we’re in a pretty good place with the league being so tough this year,” said Dempsey. “Everybody is good enough to beat you.”
Fairfield, the preseason favorite, stands as the conference frontrunners at 10-1 in the league while an under-the-radar Saint Peter’s team is second at 8-3, one game ahead of the Broncs. Rider finds itself tangled in a three-way knot for third place with Iona and Loyola (MD), creating an intriguing yet monstrous weekend in the MAAC.
When it comes to breaking down the Broncs’ biggest foes, the Stags are the obvious starting point. Fairfield’s record can be deceiving. The Stags boast a 17-4 overall mark, but also own a strength of schedule rank of 328 out of 345 Division I teams.
But give credit to the Stags. They won games, no matter the name on its schedule, and have certainly proved themselves in MAAC action. Fairfield slows opponents down and makes them play their style: half court-set, defensive-minded basketball. The Stags are the stingiest defensive unit in the conference, holding teams to a league-low 55 points per game. Star sophomore guard Derek Needham leads the charge, and with this season’s MAAC Tournament in their backyard, it’s Fairfield’s league to lose.
Saint Peter’s (13-9) returned all five starters from last season’s fourth-place squad, and they’re showing legitimacy. Senior tandem Wesley Jenkins and Ryan Bacon can be a handful.
Early on, Iona (13-9, 7-4 MAAC) seemed poised to make this year’s race a two-horse heat, but have faded of late. Yet, they’re still the most dangerous crew to upend Fairfield, alongside Rider. The Gaels possess the MAAC’s top twosome in junior forward Michael Glover, a former Big East recruit who’s tied for the conference’s scoring title (19.1 ppg) and is second in rebounding (10.7 rpg) while his partner in crime, junior point guard Scott Machado, is the number-one assist-man in America with 7.8 helpers per game.
Loyola (MD) (11-10, 7-4 MAAC) is surprisingly relevant in the standings this season and can be a pesky opponent on any night. Just ask Fairfield; who handed over its lone conference defeat? It was the Greyhounds.
Siena (9-12, 6-5 MAAC) will always be a threat until someone takes their three-time defending crown, especially when you have a player the caliber of senior Ryan Rossiter, the preseason MAAC Player of the Year, and rightfully so.
Canisius (10-11, 4-7 MAAC) is a scrappy bunch and out of its seven league losses, only two are by double-digits. The bottom-tier schools, Marist (4-19, 3-8 MAAC), Manhattan (4-18, 2-9) and Niagara (4-19, 1-10) aren’t nightmares, but they’re no cakewalk by any means.
The Broncs have the ability to not only run deep in the MAAC playoffs, but to possibly win it. Rider’s unique combination of athleticism, three-point shooting and, most crucially, veteran experience, make them serious contenders for a conference championship and a berth in the Big Dance. Though others may have different plans.