By Josh Veltrie
After last year’s up and down season that featured a huge road win over a ranked team and a 3-6 start in conference play, the men’s basketball team enters this season ranked fifth in the MAAC pre-season standings.
This was to be expected after losing a player of Ryan Thompson’s caliber to graduation, but that loss leaves openings for new players to step up, according to head coach Tommy Dempsey.
“You are going to have players come and go,” he said. “The true test of your program is, can you withstand losing good players because this isn’t the NBA, where you can keep them for 10 years.”
The Broncs go into their first game at Massachusetts tonight without a set starting rotation as Dempsey is still trying to figure out who plays well together.
Rider will look to seniors Mike Ringgold and Justin Robinson, who both made the preseason Second Team All-MAAC, to lead a well-balanced group through a tough non-conference schedule and into conference play.
“I’m excited to have this role; it’s what I’ve been waiting for,” Robinson said. “Mike and I are the two main leaders and we are excited to get the season started.”
After facing Kentucky, Virginia and Mississippi State last season, Dempsey wanted to challenge his players again by scheduling Pittsburgh, USC, TCU and UMass this year.
“We had the top out-of-conference strength of schedule in our league last year, and I think we’ll be in the mix again this year,” he said. “It’s a tough schedule but it’s what we decided to do to try and enhance the program.”
The only other eligible seniors on the roster are guards Jhamar Youngblood and Pat Mansell, both of whom will be competing for a starting spot alongside Robinson. Youngblood is more of an energy player whose strength is getting to the hoop, while Mansell is a sharpshooter from three-point range.
Juniors Novar Gadson, who was selected to the pre-season Third Team All-MAAC, and Brandon Penn, who led the Broncs in scoring in their exhibition game last Saturday, will have to step up and help fill the space left by Thompson.
“Novar is a real key because he can be one of the most dominant players in the conference,” Dempsey said. “We need to see more of those nights if we’re going to have a good year.”
In Rider’s exhibition win over Division III opponent TCNJ on Sunday, Penn and freshman Anthony Myles led the team in scoring with 19 and 16 points, respectively. Myles, along with freshmen Danny Stewart and Tommy Pereira are expected to contribute in their own ways throughout the season.
“[The freshmen] are still picking up stuff like defensive rotations but they are doing well,” Robinson said. “Anthony’s been playing well and Danny has been giving us a big lift on defense and rebounding, and Tom is just a great shooter that can help us spread the floor.”
Sophomore Jon Thompson, who is one of the best defenders on the team, will also be vying for more playing time after having a solid freshman campaign. Fellow sophomore Dera Nd-Ezuma played sparingly last year but his 6’10” frame could make him a valuable defensive asset to Dempsey, an area of the game which he says he has focused a lot more on this year.
“We have to use our defense to bail out our offense on certain nights,” Dempsey said. “We are built to be a good defensive team, but we have to create the mentality of being a defensive team to the guys that haven’t been defenders in high school.”
With six players — Ezuma, Ringgold, Gadson, Penn, Stewart and Myles — standing at 6’5” or taller, the potential to be a great defensive team is there because Rider has the versatility to switch on picks and not have the matchup problems a lot of teams have, according to Dempsey.
“Practices have been more concentrated on defense,” Robinson said. “Coach is holding guys more accountable and it starts with me and Mike, and goes all the way down to the freshmen.”
In order to win the MAAC, teams have to play well defensively. Fairfield was picked to finish first in conference over the defending champions and powerhouse, Siena, which saw three of its starters graduate and its head coach leave for Iowa. That leaves the MAAC open to teams such as Iona and Saint Peter’s, who were picked to finish third and fourth, respectively. Both teams see core players returning from squads that made it to the MAAC quarterfinals last year.
Robinson, who has used his experience from playing with the Great Britain national team over the summer to help his leadership, knows that everyone is focused on one thing this year.
“This year is going to be our year,” he said. “All of the guys are focused on the one goal of winning the MAAC Championship. No one is interested in individual accolades because we know if we win those, things will fall into place. Winning would be the perfect way to finish my Rider career,” he said.
Robinson and Ringgold, the team captains, hope to lead Rider to a victory tonight in the first game of the season against UMass at 7:30 p.m. before coming back to Alumni Gym on Sunday for the Broncs’ home opener against Lafayette at 4 p.m.
Rider only has two MAAC games before January, one at home against rival Siena on Nov. 26 before traveling to Manhattan on Dec. 2. After Jan. 3, the Broncs have 14 conference games in a row.