By Corey Donetz
The newly renovated Broncs’ Zoo will host the start of the Rider men’s basketball season on Friday, nov. 9 at 7 p.m. as the Broncs take on Robert Morris.
The Broncs will open up regular season play at home for the first time since the 2005-06 season. Rider’s opener will be followed by another game in Alumni Gym that will be nationally televised on ESPN against Stony Brook on Tuesday, Nov. 13 at 6 a.m.
Robert Morris is a veteran squad that only lost one player to graduation and returns as virtually the same team that saw success last season. Senior guard Velton Jones led the Colonials with 16 points and averaged 4.4 assists per game last season. Each of the top seven scorers from last season are returning except senior center Lijah Thompson, who tore his ACL.
“They’re a good defending team,” Head Coach Kevin Baggett said. “They were one of the better ones in their league and they’re going to be good again this year. They’ve got everybody coming back so those guys understand what it is to defend, and if you do that the results show it. They had a good year last year because of it.”
Baggett has been an advocate for prioritizing the creation of a defense that is much improved from years past. Junior forward Daniel Stewart cites playing consistent defense as crucial for securing a win against Robert Morris, and during the rest of the year.
“The key to beating [Robert Morris] is us playing great defense,” Stewart said. “Coach preaches defense and in order to win we have to play defense and get to the free-throw line and make the shots.”
The Broncs were on the losing end of an 83-57 defeat against the Colonials on the road last season.
“It’s a rude awakening — we got our behinds handed to us last year,” Baggett said. “We need to be ready to get after it again this time and being at home will hopefully be a difference as well.”
Rider’s freshmen-heavy team will get its first taste of regular-season play, and although they saw action in exhibition play, many are anxious to see how the underclassmen will handle the pressure on the court in the regular season’s early goings.
“I expect them to be nervous,” Stewart said. “I know I was as a freshman, but I’m sure once they get in the swing of things they should play well with the minutes they are given.”
Stewart averaged just over 11 points per game last season and led the team in rebounds and field goal percentage. Alongside Stewart in the projected starting lineup for Rider will be the Broncs’ leading assist man from a year ago senior guard Jon Thompson, along with junior guard Anthony Myles, sophomore center Junior Fortunat and St. John’s transfer junior guard Nurideen Lindsey.
Baggett and company will have a few days off until the Broncs take on Stony Brook at the break of dawn on Tuesday, Nov. 13 on ESPN.
“If we can defend and keep these guys in front and hold them to a low [field goal] percentage and a low scoring percentage, we’ll have a chance,” Baggett said.
Stony Brook’s shares some play style similarities with Robert Morris, but the Seawolves are a younger squad after losing some key pieces. Stony Brook will be without three of its top four scorers from last season, including Bryan Dougher, who averaged double-digit points in all four years he played with the team. Senior forward Tommy Brenton will see an increased role this year and look to cause havoc in the low post against the Broncs’ front court. Brenton averaged 7.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game last season.
Shot selection has hampered Rider in years past, and Baggett wants to see improvements from the get go.
“We can’t just settle for jump shots the whole time,” Baggett said. “I don’t want to rely on the three-point line as much as we have in the past. You sink or swim with that line and I want to be able to have a balance. When we’re not making those shots, we can also go to the basket, throw it inside and score inside or drive it and get to the basket. I don’t want to be a one-dimensional team.”
Rebounding will also be key for the Broncs as Stony Brook was one of the best rebounding teams in the nation last year. The Seawolves ranked 40th out of 338 teams in the nation while the Broncs ranked 226th.
Rider will finish up its early three-game home stand on Nov. 17 against Monmouth University.