By Carolo Pascale
Five games into the season, Rider men’s basketball sits at a disappointing 1-4, as the Broncs nearly upset Providence in the regular season opener, had a difficult trip across the pond in Ireland and were most recently embarrassed by Rutgers.
It’s been a hard first handful of games for Rider, excluding the Nov. 12, 87-50 win over TCNJ, but the Broncs haven’t found a consistent rhythm yet this season. With just one non-conference game left before their Dec. 3 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) play opener, the Broncs have to find a way to pull together their season.
A trio of losses
Coming off of the 37-point win over local foe TCNJ, the Broncs revved up the jets and headed to Dublin for the MAAC/Atlantic Sun (ASUN) Dublin Challenge against Stetson on Nov. 18 and Central Arkansas on Nov. 19. Things didn’t go as planned for the Broncs as they dropped both games despite two great performances from senior guard Dwight Murray Jr.
Game one of the Ireland trip was against Stetson, who the Broncs hadn’t played since 1993. The Hatters were coming off two big wins against Florida State and South Florida and handled the Broncs as well, topping them 78-68.
“We continue to fight and come back. The guys never gave up, the guys continued to play together. We just didn’t play smart,” said Head Coach Kevin Baggett.
Murray led the team with 17 points while three others joined him in double-digits.
The second game of the trip versus Central Arkansas was about the same for the Broncs, as Rider ultimately ended their overseas escapade 0-2 after falling 90-85 against the Bears.
A career-high, 30-point outburst from Murray was a highlight for the Broncs, but he didn’t get much help as senior forward Mervin James was the only other player to break double figures in the game with 13 points.
“[Murray’s] been great, been great all weekend, playing with a lot of passion and love for the game. I gotta get the other guys to do the same,” said Baggett.
Coming back stateside didn’t change the Broncs’ favor as they were speared by the Scarlet Knights 76-46 on Nov. 22. The lopsided loss was the Broncs’ worst offensive output since losing to Wisconsin 65-37 on Dec. 31, 2019.
“We’re not shooting well at all right now,” said Murray. “We’ve been through this last year, so we know what to do. Everybody’s got to get in the gym.”
The only bright spot for the Broncs was another 17-point performance from Murray, but everyone else was incredibly pedestrian with none of them cracking 10 points.
A secondary scoring conundrum
When a team has a special player like Murray, it also has to have a great supporting cast that can score when needed. The Broncs, at least right now, are definitely not getting that from the rest of the team.
While Murray has been averaging 19.8 points, 47.2% from the field, 43.5% from the three and five rebounds per game, only four of his teammates have eclipsed 10 points in a game this season. The only one who has done it more than once is James, who has hit double-digits three times.
In a post-game media scrum after the loss to Rutgers, Baggett was asked why the team couldn’t make shots. His response: “If I knew, I would tell you how to go play the lottery.”
Baggett also pointed out two guys that have been struggling recently, those being James and senior guard Allen Powell.
Powell has been off as of late, severely struggling to make baskets from pretty much anywhere. Over the last three games, Powell has shot just 6-for-34 from the field and a measly 2-for-21 from the three, not scoring in double figures since the game against TCNJ.
James has been better than Powell in terms of scoring, but the foul trouble that plagued him last year has persisted into this season. He’s already averaging 3.6 fouls per game, tied for the 21st most in the NCAA so far this season.
On top of those two, Rider’s bigs have been unreliable through the first five games, one being junior forward Tariq Ingraham who notched more than 10 points in a game.
“My bigs are struggling to be alert out there,” said Baggett.
Murray himself is also looking for more scoring support, but would be happier if the team just gets back in the win column.
“You know, 17 points and 30 points ain’t nothing unless we get a win. I’d be happy to just have 10 points and my other teammates have 20 if we win the game,” said Murray after the Rutgers loss.
A lingering issue returns
You can certainly call it a comeback, as the foul issues have once again resurfaced for the Broncs.
The fouls were a problem for Rider last year, with the Broncs averaging 17.2 fouls per game and James committing 115 fouls over the course of the season, which was tied for the third highest total fouls in the entire NCAA.
As for this year, since the regular season opener against Providence, the fouls have played a major factor in the Broncs 2022-23 campaign.
James’ recent foul troubles haven’t been the only fouls that have been hampering the team. The Broncs have committed the ninth most fouls per game in the NCAA this year, committing 22 fouls per game. Three other players alongside James have foul numbers in the teens so far this season, with those being Ingraham, redshirt senior forward Tyrel Bladen, and junior forward Nehemiah Benson.
“It’s a problem. They’re just not doing what we’re asking them to do,” Baggett said. “We’re not alert. They’re a second late on everything and then we end up fouling so we have to get better.”
Rider will have to improve all around as it inches closer toward its first MAAC play game against Mount St. Mary’s on Dec. 3. Before that, the Broncs have one more non-conference matchup against the team that knocked them out of the semifinals of last year’s conference tournament and former rival, the Monmouth Hawks, on Nov. 30 at 8 p.m.