PREVIEW: Broncs, Murray want to ‘win the whole thing’
By Carolo Pascale
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Flashback to the night of March 11, 2022. Rider men’s basketball had just lost in the semifinal round of the 2022 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Tournament, falling to then conference foe Monmouth 72-68 despite senior guard Dwight Murray Jr. putting up 20 points.
Immediately after the loss, Murray issued a guarantee: “We’re going to win the whole thing next year.”
With the 2023 MAAC Tournament now here, Murray and the Broncs look to hold true to his statement and secure their first MAAC title in program history.
A core built for March
After getting to the semifinal round last season, the Broncs have an experienced core that knows what it takes to make a deep run in the MAAC Tournament. The core revolves not around a classic basketball big three, but an extremely rare big five, where a plentiful amount of Broncs can drive production. Those players include: graduate student forward Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson, senior forward Mervin James, junior forward Tariq Ingraham, senior guard Allen Powell and Murray.
Starting with Ogemuno-Johnson, he’s been a stalwart in the paint for the past five years. He broke the program record for games played on Feb. 26 in his 134th game and finished the 2022-23 regular season with 136. His post presence, rebounding and leadership qualities have been a critical part of the team’s success this season. Ogemuno-Johnson has been mostly the six man in the second half of the year, but he averaged at least 6.5 points and almost six rebounds in the final eight games off the bench.
“We feel confident. I think the guys know what’s at stake,” said Ogemuno-Johnson on how the core feels going into the tournament. “We’ve been here, we’ve done this. We’ve broken down the wall last year, now we just need to do it again and push forward.”
Next is James, who earned All-MAAC second team honors for his performance in the regular season. The 6-foot-7 forward has been Rider’s “Mr. Consistent,” scoring over 10 points in all but six of his 29 games this season and averaging 12.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and a team-leading 15 blocks this year. He finished as the MAAC’s fifth best rebounder and used his athleticism and bang-and-crash style to get boards. He also has a great offensive touch around the rim and can drive to the net with finesse and power.
The third part of the core is Ingraham. He’s the newest member of the core, this being his first season as a Bronc, but it has gone well for the Wake Forest transfer. This is the first full season that the forward has played after battling injuries, and he’s been able to average 6.4 points and 3.6 rebounds, scoring a career-high 20 points on March 2. He earned a starting role in the second half of the season, with his big and bruising play style matching up well with Ogemuno-Johnson’s coming off the bench.
Up next is Powell, who has hit his stride at a perfect time. The sharpshooter has had some ups and downs this season, but has turned it on as of late. The senior scored double-digit points in nine of the last 13 games and exploded for a season-high 24 points against Siena on Feb. 24. He averaged 10.8 points and 2.1 assists per game. If Powell can continue his hot streak, the Broncs will be able to expand their use of 3-pointers and long two’s in the tournament.
And lastly comes Murray. He’s the home run hitter. The superstar point guard, dubbed the “Iona Killer” by James, has been the backbone of the Broncs ever since he stepped foot in Alumni Gym. He earned his second All-MAAC first team honors unanimously for his incredible efforts in the regular season. He averaged 15.9 points per game and only scored under double figures six times in 28 games. Murray does it all for Rider: driving to the hoop, making clutch threes, yanking down rebounds, lockdown defense and leadership.
Dominance in the paint
A large part of Rider’s success this season has come from the ability to score in the paint. The Broncs have been one of the best teams in this aspect for the season, only being outscored in that area two times and tying one other in MAAC play.
The Broncs averaged 35 points in the paint this season, scoring 700 total points from around the rim. It’s been the Broncs’ bread and butter throughout the year, and with players who can get offensive rebounds, drive hard to the net and use the body like the core can, they can do real damage against weaker post teams in the tournament.
Players like Ingraham, Ogemuno-Johnson and James have shown that they can do lots of damage against some of the MAAC’s best players, a prime example being the regular season finale against Iona. Rider clobbered the Gaels in the paint with 44 of their points from that territory. Iona only managed 28 on the other side, a 16-point swing.
“We were scoring in the paint, we were dominating in the paint,” said Baggett. “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”
If Rider can keep that level and consistency with the in-the-paint scoring throughout the tournament, they are primed for a deep run.
A path to the championship
With the MAAC Tournament now upon them, the Broncs have as good a path as any to make it to the final. As the No. 2 seed, they will play No. 10 Saint Peter’s in the quarterfinals. If Rider wins, they could play No. 3 Quinnipiac, No. 6 Manhattan or even No. 11 Marist in the semifinal, which bodes well for the Broncs.
Rider has never won a MAAC title, but has claimed a conference three times, last winning while a member of the Northeast Conference (NEC) in the 1993-94 season. Despite never winning the tournament while in the MAAC, the Broncs have been to the finals two times, those being the 2004-05 and 2007-08 seasons. In both those seasons Rider was the No. 2 seed just like this year.
If the Broncs end up making the final, they could have a date with destiny against the dreaded No. 1 Iona Gaels, coached by Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Rick Pitino, which would be a dream scenario matchup for the MAAC.
“If [Pitino] was going to throw blow to blow, we were going to throw blow to blow,” said Baggett after the regular season finale against Iona. “They wanted to set a tone and we wanted to send a message back that if this is going to be two teams that could potentially play next week, this is what you’re going to see again.”
Rider’s quarterfinal game against Saint Peter’s will start at 9:30 p.m. on March 8 and will be streamed on ESPN+.