By Shaun Chornobroff
The Rider men’s basketball team had a number of questions heading into the 2020-21 season. A team that had 12 new players seemed to be a giant question mark, a group of transfers and unproven talent that represented the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s (MAAC) unknown.
Among the unproven talents were two centers that Head Coach Kevin Baggett knew he was going to be forced to rely on in junior Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson and redshirt sophomore Tyrel Bladen.
Through three games both players have shown why they had Baggett’s confidence at different times.
Against Syracuse it was Ogemuono-Johnson who was the better of the two, scoring five points and grabbing eight rebounds, while Bladen was made invalid by a swarming Orange defense that kept him scoreless and limited him to only two rebounds in 16 minutes of action.
In the loss to St. John’s it was the inverse, with Bladen looking terrific, setting career highs in both points and rebounds in a breakout performance, while Ogemuno-Johnson looked outmatched by the Red Storm grabbing a single rebound and an assist, also getting into foul trouble in his 12 minutes of play.
After the game Baggett stressed that he needed to get the duo “on the same pace.”.
In Rider’s conference opening 82-64 win over Manhattan on Dec. 11, it may have started to come together for the Rider centers.
Both Bladen, who came off the bench, and Ogemuno-Johnson were stellar, combining for 19 points and 12 rebounds, while shooting 9-of-10 from the field.
Bladen set career highs for the second consecutive game, scoring 11 points and grabbing nine rebounds, with Ogemuno-Johnson providing a more than reliable eight points and three boards.
Baggett did say Bladen is starting to settle into his role after the win, but acknowledged there was obvious room for growth.
“Yeah, if he can just get all that other B.S. out of him, the backboard slapping, the foul on the baseline, those are maturity things that he has to grow up and understand that he can’t do those things… but he’s certainly on his way,” Baggett said. “Ajiri had a great night for us as well. I’m certainly proud of the post presence that we had tonight. We need that, we’re going to need that every night.”
Both players have shown extreme promise through the first three games, Baggett just hopes they continue to grow.
“We got a long way to go, this is not a game to game expectation, this is a year process,” Baggett explained. “They got work to do, they got a lot of room to get better, we got a lot of room to get better as a team. I’m not ready to do any cheerleading at this point, we got a long way to go.”
Rider will look to sweep its weekend series against Manhattan on Dec. 12 at 6 p.m.