By Charles Guthrie
People are starting to take notice of the men’s basketball team.
The Broncs made some noise competing in the Old Spice Classic in November with a win over Big 10 foe Penn State. They then went into the Louis Brown Athletic Center in Piscataway, N.J. and beat Rutgers on its own court.
Those wins made strides for the program in terms of gathering respect, but they were still considered the third best team in the MAAC. The Broncs are now riding an eight-game winning streak heading into the thick of their conference schedule and now the college basketball pollsters are starting to see something in this team.
CollegeInsider.com released its Top 25 Mid-Major Poll and Rider is peeking in there at the 25th position.
“It’s exciting for our University,” Head Coach Tommy Dempsey said. “We work hard on a daily basis, but we have to try not to get too caught up in the media attention and start thinking that we are better than we really are.”
It’s a step for a program that is trying to put itself on the college basketball map.
While it may not be as big of a poll as the Associated Press or ESPN, it does feature some colleges that have left their mark in March.
Gonzaga, the top team in the poll, has been a constant in March since the 1999 tournament when they made it to the Elite Eight, and it’s almost to the point where they aren’t even considered a mid-major.
It’s hard for anyone to forget the impact George Mason had on the college basketball landscape in 2006 when they did the improbable and reached the Final Four. The next year, another CAA conference team, VCU (No. 5 in the poll), knocked off the almighty Duke Blue Devils in the first round.
Mid-majors are the schools that make the Big Dance so interesting. They are the ones that have you scratching your head wondering who should advance in the No. 5 vs. No. 12 or No. 6 vs. No. 11 seed game.
These are the guys that either ruin your bracket or make you look like genius.
Bracketologist Joe Lunardi, who is regarded as one of the best in terms of predicting who will play where in the NCAA Tournament, has 11 of the teams listed in the poll making the tournament in his new tournament brackets on ESPN. Out of those 11, he has Gonzaga as a six seed, St. Mary’s as a five seed and Drake as a four seed.
Lunardi has Marist representing the MAAC in his bracket that was updated earlier in the week. The Broncs went into the McCann Center on Wednesday and took over the game, giving Marist its first home loss of the season.
Rider is heading into a crucial part of the schedule where it plays second place Siena twice and gets a rematch with Niagara at the Zoo. If the Broncs can come out of that stretch with at least two wins, a regular season championship could be in the near future.
With the team having complete control of its own destiny, Dempsey stresses that the players need to stay focused on the goal at hand. He feels the team needs to play as if being targeted by every other team in the conference because every team will be giving the Broncs their best shot.
Can they do it?
Of course they can. They have a team that’s built to make the run, and it’s all on them.
They have a star and powerful inside presence in senior forward Jason Thompson who is among the top 30 candidates for one of the most prestigious awards in college basketball, the John R. Wooden Award.
You have a “protector” in freshman forward Mike Ringgold, who’s a tireless worker down-low in picking up loose boards and giving Rider second chance opportunities on offense.
They have guys who can hit the outside jumper and create space inside with juniors Harris Mansell and Lamar Johnson. Senior Kamron Warner can also beat you with the jumper as he’s shown the past few games.
Sophomore Ryan Thompson has proven that he’s more than just Jason’s younger brother and can take over a game if needed. Watch the Rutgers game again if you don’t think so.
Freshman guard Justin Robinson is maturing into the point guard position as the season goes on, and freshman Matt Griffin is also out there making things happen on the hardwood.
Johnson, Griffin and Warner are just three of the guys that make up a Rider bench that Dempsey said makes the team go “11 deep.” Sophomore Robbie Myers and senior Joel Green have come in and given the Broncs much needed depth at the forward and center positions.
Then there’s red shirt freshman guard Patrick Mansell, who can come off the bench and provide instant offense.
They have what’s needed to show they are more than a blip on college basketball’s radar. The MAAC is theirs for the taking, all they have to do is get it.