By Brandon Scalea
It’s time to end a 24-year drought. This is the year the men’s basketball team needs to win the MAAC Championship.
When Rider got the ball back against Penn State, down by two with 7.2 seconds left, every Broncs fan thought this would be another game against a Power 5 team where they knocked on the door, but came up short.
Then sophomore guard Stevie Jordan got boxed into the corner and fired a pass to freshman forward Frederick Scott, who splashed a three-pointer a couple ticks before the horn to give Rider a huge upset — well, experts will call it an upset simply because it’s a Big Ten school against a MAAC program, but the Broncs were the better team for most of that Dec. 22 game.
Scott’s clutch shot made No. 7 on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays that night and catapulted Rider into the national spotlight for a weekend.
With the way things have gone this season, it shouldn’t be the last time college basketball fans have this small, private school in Lawrenceville on their radar. Rider (17-7, 10-2 MAAC) deserves to be penciled into every NCAA Tournament bracket this coming March.
In fact, the latest bracketology on both ESPN and SB Nation has the team as high as a No. 14 seed in the East. No. 1 Villanova is projected to be the top seed in that region, followed by the likes of Duke, Oklahoma and Rhode Island.
If this pans out, the first-round games would be in Boston, which isn’t a bad drive from Rider.
O.K., O.K., let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
This year’s Broncs, picked seventh in the conference preseason poll, have also beaten George Washington, taken Providence down to the wire and hung in there with No. 6 Xavier, which could very well be a Final Four team.
Redshirt freshman guard Jordan Allen has shot the lights out. Once he drops a three-pointer, you could expect him to drain another three or four in a row. He’s averaging 13.3 ppg and is shooting almost 40 percent from beyond the arc. Give him MAAC Rookie of the Year right now, please.
Then there’s Dimencio Vaughn, another redshirt freshman, who is making his case for a boatload of individual awards.
Anyone remember when, in the offseason, he was arrested for drugs and weapons charges? Me too. But this young man has turned whatever adversity he has faced into a monster season. Vaughn, the 6-foot-5 guard from New York City, is averaging 14 ppg and is shooting over 50 percent from the field.
Is he a MAAC Player of the Year candidate? I’d put him on my ballot.
Let’s not forget about Stevie Jordan, either, who is the quarterback of this Rider offense. Or sophomore forward Tyere Marshall, another young gun, who is automatic in the paint.
The Broncs have so many weapons. There’s no reason why they can’t win the regular season title and then three games in Albany.
History, however, will prove otherwise. In 2014-15, Rider clinched the No. 2 seed going into the MAAC Tournament and was expected to face Iona for the title and March Madness rights. Instead, the Broncs were embarrassed by St. Peter’s in the quarterfinals and sent home empty-handed.
The following year, the Broncs played well down the stretch of the regular season, but again fell in the quarterfinals to Monmouth — who was the talk of the town that year for its theatrical bench mob, high-major wins, but ultimately no championship.
Last season, on the backs of beloved seniors Kahlil Thomas and Jimmie Taylor, Rider lost in the (you guessed it) quarterfinals of the conference tournament to eventual champion Iona.
Six seasons as Rider’s head coach has yielded 100 career wins for Kevin Baggett, but his teams have never advanced to the semifinals of the MAAC Tournament.
The Times Union Center in Albany, New York has been a house of horrors for the Broncs, but this is the year they need to exorcise their demons, get to the title game and win it.
Two-time defending champion Iona would likely be Rider’s biggest challenge in postseason play, as one of the Broncs’ two MAAC losses this year was a 27-point hammering in New Rochelle, New York. The Gaels, who currently sit in third place at 9-3, likely wouldn’t cross Rider’s path until the title game.
If the Broncs remain as the top seed, they’d be on the other side of the MAAC Tournament bracket from the second and third seeds.
Another team that could give Rider fits is St. Peter’s, who the Broncs swept this year. Head Coach John Dunne’s gritty squad from Jersey City is notorious, and hated, for its shutdown defense.
In a Jan. 26 game in Alumni Gym that was televised on ESPNU, the Peacocks used that stingy defense to build a 16-point lead. Rider ultimately erased that lead in the final minutes and won, 63-60, in front of a rowdy sellout crowd. But if the Broncs had to face their in-state rival for a third time, they would have to bring their best effort.
In a year that a faculty strike was threatened, a historic choir college was put on the market and major financial deficits were projected, a MAAC Championship and NCAA Tournament bid would bring much-needed school spirit and energy to this quiet campus.
Don’t believe me? Go on YouTube and look up “The Suber Shot.” You’ll find a video of Rider winning the 1993 conference championship at the buzzer, clinching a bid to March Madness in Alumni Gym. The crowd storms the court and bedlam ensues. It’ll give you chills.
The MAAC Tournament this year begins on March 1. The Broncs will have a weekend-long date with destiny.