By Brandon Scalea
At this point last season, the men’s basketball team was enjoying a 16-9 record and had a lot to look forward to.
With teams like Seton Hall and Princeton unraveling, and with Rutgers rooted to the bottom of the Big Ten, the Broncs seemed like New Jersey’s best shot at an NCAA Tournament bid.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. In just the quarterfinals of the MAAC Tournament, seventh-seeded St. Peter’s erased second-seeded Rider’s 21-win season and sent it home empty-handed.
In 2016, the Broncs currently sit at a record of 10-15; however, along with showings that have left Rider fans scratching their heads, they have demonstrated signs of excellence, especially in recent weeks.
They seem to play their best basketball when playing the best teams. On Nov. 20, the Broncs took on then-No. 3 ranked Maryland down to the wire, even holding a 14-point lead in the second half. On Dec. 19, Rider would not go away against No. 14 ranked Providence, who had to use a late run to pull away and escape with a win.
For these reasons, the Broncs have a lot to look forward to on Feb. 12, when the ESPNU crew rolls into Alumni Gym for the home matchup against Monmouth.
This season, Monmouth (19-5, 11-2 MAAC) has certainly reached new heights; and let’s face it, everyone thinks the Hawks have it in the bag.
Graduate guard Teddy Okereafor thinks preparation is key for this one.
“It’s going to be a big game this weekend,” he said. “All the hype is there, considering what they’ve been able to do so far and the fact that it’s on ESPNU. We’re just going to have to be more focused on the details, scout and limit what we give them in transition. They like to play up-tempo, so we have to take care of the ball.”
Not only do people think Monmouth will be cruising to an easy MAAC title in March, they are projecting it to have a considerably high seed for a mid-major team when the NCAA Tournament comes around.
Its non-conference schedule seemed daunting in the preseason, leaving many to think the Hawks would be in a deep hole when conference play approached. Instead, they proceeded to defeat UCLA and Georgetown on the road, not to mention Notre Dame and USC at neutral sites.
Freshman guard Kealen Ives acknowledged the type of season Monmouth is having.
“We know that they are a top team in the league and we have to be ready for a battle on Friday night,” he said. “We’ve had time to rest and refocus and get into the right mindset for the game.”
Heading into the season, many of the experts had Iona as the top dog in the MAAC and expected it to three-peat as regular season champions. Monmouth went up to New Rochelle, New York, and put up 110 points in 40 minutes.
Hawks junior guard Justin Robinson has been key to their success and is considered by some to be a top point guard in the nation. He averages 20.5 ppg and 3.6 rebounds per game.
Okereafor, Rider’s own offensive leader this season, understands the importance of containing Robinson.
“We’ve got to locate him early and limit what easy buckets we give him,” he said. “Ball screen defense is going to be huge. We need to contest every shot without fouling.”
Despite Monmouth’s great play, the team’s bench has emerged as one of college basketball’s greatest stories in 2015-16. Whether you like them or not, you have to admit they are creative. Every time the Hawks make a basket, the bench engages in crazy theatrics. Some notable ones include the old “I can’t find my glasses” celebration, an improvised scene from Star Wars and a parody of Michelangelo’s “The Creation” on the Sistine Chapel.
The Monmouth bench has been on ESPN’s SportsCenter several times this season. It has put Monmouth basketball — and all of MAAC hoops for that matter — back on the map.
The Hawks will walk into a sold-out Alumni Gym on Feb. 12 without being intimidated. After all, a capacity crowd at the Monmouth Athletic Center has been commonplace these days. A Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 30 and 19 wins in 24 games definitely helps in that sense.
However, a team like Rider poses the biggest threat to Monmouth. The Broncs are under the radar this season, while the Hawks are out there. The Broncs have nothing to lose at this point — an at-large bid for them is out of the question, leaving them to merely fight for seeding in the MAAC Tournament. On the other hand, Monmouth is looking ahead to March Madness. It is just trying to pick up style points, something that might not even be earned with a win in Alumni Gym, home to the 10-win Broncs.
The same thing happened to Rider in the MAAC Tournament last year. It was looking ahead to teams like Iona and Manhattan as the biggest obstacles en route to the automatic bid. Instead, lowly St. Peter’s played like it had nothing to lose and dominated the Broncs.
If Rider comes out of the gate and plays against the Hawks — a familiar opponent — like it did in College Park, Maryland, and in a convincing win against Iona back in January, then get ready for what college basketball writers will call one of the biggest upsets of the year. The Broncs can beat Monmouth; they simply have to play their best basketball to do it.
Ives has to generate offense like he’s done so often this year, especially when the Broncs are winning. Junior center Kahlil Thomas has to be a monster in the paint like he’s done seemingly all season, and he needs to live up to his current ranking as second in the conference for field goal percentage.
Rider certainly has momentum in recent weeks. After a dismal start to the season that saw them sitting at 4-12 overall, and 0-5 in MAAC play, the Broncs have taken six of their last nine.
In that span, they were able to knock off Marist in double overtime — a game in which the Red Foxes led by 9 with a minute left in regulation. Rider was also able to defeat A.J. English and Iona for the first time since 2012-13.
“We all have to continue to do our part,” Ives said. “We are going to need to lock in on defense and communicate. It’s a team effort. We play for each other.”
Most importantly, the Broncs will have to have the crowd on their side. Alumni Gym is usually packed on game days, but this contest will have added electricity to it. Tickets officially sold out on Feb. 9.
And you can bet that if Rider pulls this one out, it will certainly be a Broncs’ Zoo in Lawrenceville.