By Shaun Chornobroff
The monster that is the 2020-21 college basketball season has reared its ugly head at the Rider men’s basketball team recently.
On Feb. 5 the team announced that there had been a positive COVID-19 test among tier-one personnel, putting the team on pause.
A mere two weeks before the positive test, Rider was hit with another blow when junior forward Dontrell McQuarter left the team due to a family emergency and has yet to return.
Despite the hardships that have found their way to Lawrenceville recently, the Broncs have been much improved since the calendars turned from 2020 to 2021, giving many reasons for optimism in a time when buoyancy was hard to find.
Rider lost 87.5% of its scoring from the previous season — the only school that lost more was Kentucky. Head Coach Kevin Baggett’s roster was a complete remodel from the year before and with an unusual offseason, the team didn’t have as much time to practice and gain chemistry and it showed early.
New Year, Improved Broncs
The Broncs endured the worst start of Baggett’s tenure, sitting at 1-6 when 2020 came to an end. The team hasn’t done a complete 180, but it has been much improved and given many reasons for optimism.
Rider has accrued a record of 3-5 since the ball dropped on New Year’s Eve, sitting at 4-11 on the season and 4-8 in Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) competition this year. It is still not a great record by any means, but it is improved from where Rider was at the beginning of the season.
In Rider’s embarrassing season-opening loss to Syracuse, there was a single standout player: junior guard Dwight Murray Jr. The transfer from Incarnate Word dropped 20 points against the Orange, a feat he has done four more times this season, immediately establishing himself as not only a team leader but one of the best guards in the MAAC.
“I fit right in, as soon as I got here I was watching film with coach [Baggett] in the summer, just seeing how the offense works and I fell in love with the Rider way,” Murray said after a Dec.11 win against Manhattan. “He just told me if he could trust me and I could trust him, then I could be that glue guy for the team. My teammates helped me a lot with that, just being there, finishing shots and playing hard with me.”
The six-foot guard is averaging 15.4 points (third-best in the MAAC), 4.6 assists (best in the MAAC) and 6.5 rebounds (eighth-best in the MAAC) per game in his first season at Rider. The Georgia native has carried on the lineage of great guard play at Rider and is a near-lock to get all-conference honors this season.
Powell’s Sophomore Surge
On Jan. 15 against Siena, Baggett made a change, inserting guard Allen Powell into the starting lineup. Powell had started when sophomore guard Christian Ings was absent from a near-upset against St. John’s, scoring 17 points and making 50% of his three-point shots, but was held scoreless in the opening game of a back-to-back against the first-place Saints.
Baggett kept Powell in the starting lineup the next night and the sophomore from Philadelphia did not disappoint, scoring 17 points and hitting clutch shots down the stretch, falling just short of a come from behind upset win over the Saints.
“I wanted him to show he’s the Allen Powell that we know he’s capable of being, being more aggressive and being the player we recruited in here,” Baggett said after Powell’s standout performance. “He and I met today and I just said ‘it’s go time,’ he’s a sophomore now, it’s time for him to take the next step.”
Powell has started five games this season and in those games, he averages 13.6 points per game and has converted on 59% of his three-point attempts.
Starting Off Slow
In the latter game of the series against Siena and Marist, Rider fought hard, but it found itself in large deficits early in the game that it could not escape from. Against Siena, Rider had a 17-point deficit and ended up having a chance to send the game to overtime and face Marist, but the team found itself down 41-7 in the first half (I promise this isn’t a typo), only to cut the deficit to seven in the second half.
“We’re still young, figuring things out, we’re very inconsistent,” Baggett said after the heartbreaking loss against Siena. “For these guys to continue to fight and not give up because you can give up when you’re down 17, again just speaks to the character of guys like [Allen Powell] and all the other guys that were part of that comeback. Live and you learn, we’re still learning… We’re still learning how to win too.”
Rider will play its next games at 4 p.m. on Feb. 20 and 21, facing Quinnipiac on the road.