By Ben Smith
The men’s basketball season begins this weekend as the Broncs travel to take on Robert Morris tonight and then follow up with a game against 10th-ranked Pittsburgh on Sunday.
The journey will be a difficult task as the Broncs will be without four players in action and one player is doubtful. Junior Dera Nd-Ezuma has a concussion while sophomore Tommy Pereira is battling a leg injury. Junior Jonathon Thompson is still serving the back end of his suspension from last season, while freshman Junior Fortunat is having eligibility issues with regards to his transcripts from high school.
Rider’s quest of making its first NCAA tournament since 1994 begins this weekend in western Pennsylvania before returning home for the Tuesday “white-out” contest in Alumni Gym at 6 a.m. versus Drexel.
The Broncs beat East Stroudsburg in their annual preseason exhibition match, 74-61, in the final test before the regular season. The senior one-two punch of Novar Gadson and Jeff Jones combined for 35 points while the starting frontcourt collected 23 rebounds, over half of the team’s total. Rider turned the ball over 23 times, however, and shot a meager 65 percent from the foul line, not a performance it can hang its hat on should it expect to give Pittsburgh a run for its money.
“When you only have three weeks to practice, every team has holes to fill,” Head Coach Tommy Dempsey said.
Pittsburgh is the tougher team to prepare to play. However, Robert Morris has been dominant at home of late, brandishing an 11-2 home record last season. Robert Morris reached its third straight conference championship game last year despite finishing third in the conference with an 18-14 record. The Colonials fell to Long Island in the tournament championship in overtime, 85-82.
Robert Morris Head Coach Andrew Toole is in only his second year with the school’s program, but has found success. Toole led the Colonials to a 12-6 conference record last season despite having only one senior on his roster.
This year, there is again only one senior on the roster and the Colonials will once again be short on strength and leadership, qualities lacking in recent years. Robert Morris’ top-returning scorer, Karon Abraham (13.9 ppg.) is suspended for the season and will undoubtedly be missed.
Rider and Robert Morris were once both members of the NEC with Rider dominating the head-to-head play, winning eight of 10 games. Rider has not played the Colonials since moving to the MAAC in 1997.
Rider will attempt to play a good game against Pitt, a consensus Associated Press top-10 team. Pitt has already played in, and won, two exhibition games, outscoring its opponents 177-100. Last December, Rider lost to then third-ranked Pitt, 87-68.
To leave Pittsburgh with a win, Dempsey knows the importance of a quick start.
“In my experience, you have to have a big first half,” he said. “Bring that momentum to the locker room and believe. You have to give them a fight they didn’t expect.”
In their last outing in Pittsburgh, Gadson recorded 10 points on 4-8 shooting with five rebounds in 34 minutes. He also turned the ball over four times as Pitt won the turnover battle 14-6.
Now, Gadson has emerged as a team leader and will be starting at forward. He has been selected to the Preseason First Team All-MAAC. His ability to shoot the ball from the outside as well as his developed ability to score inside makes him an explosive threat to any team.
“Our best players will have to have big games,” Dempsey said.
Last season, Gadson put up five 20-point performances as the Broncs went 23-11 and 13-5 in the MAAC.
Rider also has added the sharpshooting Jones to the roster, who is familiar with Dempsey’s style of play. Last year, Jones sat out the entire season because of the NCAA’s transfer rule after leaving Virginia, where he accumulated 555 points in three seasons with the Cavaliers.
Jones may very well challenge Gadson for the rights of the team’s top scorer this season. Jones started 25 games as a freshman at Virginia and shot a lights-out 43.5 percent from behind the arc just two years ago.
Rider enjoys the uphill battle that is associated in playing quality teams on the road. They’re hoping their competitive play translates into a spot in the NCAA Tournament this year.
Rider was picked to finish fourth in the MAAC in the Coaches Preseason Poll, announced last month at the Naismith National Basketball Hall of Fame.
Dempsey appreciates the respect his team earns when playing powerhouse teams on the road.
“If you can go out and represent [the university] well, you can increase the attention your team gets,” he said.