By Shaun Chornobroff
The NCAA basketball season started with much anticipation on Nov. 25. Men’s and women’s teams from across the country opened up play in what is set to be an unconventional season.
The Rider women’s basketball team opened up its season that day with a loss to Villanova, but the men’s team did not take the court and will not be seeing game action until Dec. 5 in a matchup against Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) powerhouse Syracuse.
The men’s basketball team will play three additional nonconference matchups against St. John’s on Dec. 8, the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) on Dec. 23 and Coppin State on Dec. 29. The NJIT and Coppin State matchups will take place in Lawrenceville, with the Syracuse and St. John’s games being Rider’s only nonconference road game as of right now.
There was large speculation that college basketball may be affected or postponed in New Jersey due to COVID-19 cases skyrocketing in recent weeks. However, Gov. Phil Murphy said on Nov. 30 that “college-level and professional teams” will be the only exceptions from a pause on indoor sports lasting from Dec. 5 to Jan. 2, which will allow the season to go as planned, barring any cancellations or scheduling changes.
Rider’s opening game of the season against Syracuse will not need to be canceled regardless of the pause because the game is taking place in New York.
The early December game, taking place in the historic Carrier Dome, will be the first game a new-look Rider team will play together.
“It’s important just so we can get some experience under our belt,” men’s basketball Head Coach Kevin Baggett said of the game against Syracuse. “We have a lot of inexperience and youth on our team. The more opportunities you get to play an opponent, the more experience you can get, the more you can figure out your team, the more you can figure out rotations and where you still need to continue to teach and coach and being that we had no exhibition game this year, which we normally do, this game is coming upon us and we can’t wait because it will tell us a little more about ourselves.”
Rider has not defeated a Power Five opponent since taking down Penn State in a 71-70 nailbiter in December of 2017, a drought which it hopes ends against the Orange, but the Broncs do face an extremely tough challenge.
Syracuse, led by Hall of Fame Head Coach Jim Boeheim, will prove to be more than a stern test. The team is predicted to finish sixth in a talented ACC, according to the conference’s preseason poll, and brings back some talented pieces of their team from the previous season, including dynamic guard duo Buddy Boeheim and Joe Girard III.
Playing a team like Syracuse — a big-name, historic national power — is always a unique experience for a smaller program like Rider, but Baggett sees this matchup providing a potential advantage for Rider as he looks ahead to Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) play.
“The unique thing about Syracuse is that those guys are very zone defense-oriented,” Baggett said. “Normally we would not play a team to open up a season, nonconference wise, that’s just exclusively zone, like Syracuse.”
The two-time MAAC Coach of the Year said the team has been spending a majority of its time practicing against man-to-man defenses, but facing a zone-oriented team like Syracuse may end up being a blessing in disguise.
“It’ll play in our favor just because of the way the schedule is working out, being that Syracuse is going to play zone and I see Manhattan will be our next game on Dec. 11,” said Baggett.
Manhattan, who Rider opens up its conference slate against, is one of the few teams in the MAAC that uses a zone defense as their primary defense, giving the Broncs an advantage heading into their opening weekend of conference basketball.
Syracuse was expected to be Rider’s only nonconference opponent before MAAC play as of right now, but Baggett didn’t rule out adding an opponent in the six days between the team’s game against Syracuse and Manhattan during a conversation on Nov 27 and on Dec. 2 the program added a game against St. John’s.
“If we can find a close game… in the area where we wouldn’t need to do a whole bunch of traveling, we would potentially entertain another game leading up to the 11th against Manhattan after playing Syracuse on the fifth,” Baggett said. “It’s got to make sense for us and our program, I don’t want us to have to do a great deal of traveling.”
Baggett did say that he has had conversations with both Villanova and Binghamton, but ended up adding the game against the Red Storm.
Binghamton is led by former Rider men’s basketball Head Coach and Baggett’s former boss and predecessor, Tommy Dempsey.
Rider’s matchups against Coppin State and NJIT come amidst the early part of the MAAC season, but provide great value to a Rider team with a dozen newcomers that will still be trying to find themselves.
“I just think the more you can play games the more you can learn a lot about your team… We got to develop an identity and what will this team’s identity be,” Baggett asked. “Playing against NJIT and Coppin State, those games will further help us identify who we are to get better, to understand what our rotation is going to be going into January after the two December games. Every game at this point we need, so we’re certainly looking forward to each and every game we can play.”