By Brandon Scalea
Last season, the men’s basketball team struggled to a 14-17 overall record, while three transfer students waited for their chance to bring a winning attitude back to Alumni Gym.
Because of NCAA regulations, transfers must sit out an entire year before donning their new jerseys. So while guard Anthony D’Orazio’s injury forced him to sit out his final season with Lehigh, guard Teddy Okereafor from Virginia Commonwealth (VCU) and center Matt Lopez from La Salle and Utah State, waited for their turn to contribute to the Broncs.
This year, Rider (19-10, 13-5 MAAC) has reached new heights thanks to these transfers. While D’Orazio is shooting 34 percent from beyond the arc, second best on the team behind only junior guard Zedric Sadler, Okereafor has come through in key situations for the Broncs — most notably in OT against conference foes Fairfield and Manhattan. Meanwhile Lopez, the 7-footer, has seen his play put him in the conversation for MAAC Player of the Year, though a recent injury may hurt his chances.
Head Coach Kevin Baggett commented on how well these three players have adjusted to their new home.
“When you bring in a transfer, your biggest concern is if they are going to fit in,” Baggett said. “Not only are these guys coachable, but they are great teammates. They all come from good programs, and these are the kind of guys you want in your locker room.”
Graduate guard Anthony D’Orazio
D’Orazio, a former standout at Camden Catholic High School, played three seasons at Lehigh, but an injury had sidelined him for the entirety of the 2013-14 season.
That injury left him with one year of eligibility, which he chose to spend at Rider. D’Orazio established a close relationship with fellow transfer Lopez.
“Matt was probably the biggest reason I originally decided to come here,” D’Orazio said. “I also really liked Coach Baggs and his values, and I liked the direction the program was heading. It’s been a nice change of pace.”
D’Orazio has added needed experience to the back court for Rider, and has more assists this year with 68 than he had in any of his years with Lehigh.
He is averaging 5 points per game, while hitting 40 percent of his field goals and shooting 33 percent from beyond the arc.
Senior guard Teddy Okereafor
For Okereafor, the journey began overseas in his hometown of London. He came to the United States to pursue his basketball career, playing high school ball at the Christchurch School in Virginia before he committed to VCU, playing in all 32 games in his 2012-13 season.
VCU was the CAA conference champion in 2013, advancing to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. However, Okereafor wanted to possess a more prominent role with a new team.
“I wanted to have a more dominant role on a team and after I visited Rider I knew I would get that opportunity here,” he said. “I like the coaching staff here and how the program is a lot more close-knit and family-based. The home games are also a lot more fun, especially when there’s people in the stands you know cheering you on.”
Okereafor is currently second on the team in points per game with 12 and first in assists with 4.4; however, his importance to the team extends past just statistics.
In front of the home crowd and with his team trailing by 2 against Manhattan on Feb 8 with 17 seconds left in regulation, Okereafor drained two foul shots to send the game to overtime, where the Broncs took the 85-77 victory.
Senior center Matt Lopez
Although Lopez’s move to Rider was a homecoming in a sense, it was worlds away from where he started his collegiate career. While in high school, Lopez built a good relationship with La Salle Head Coach, John Giannini, and decided to commit to the Atlantic 10 powerhouse.
At La Salle, the red-shirt freshman played a significant role in the offensive scheme that revolved around the big guys on the court. The Explorer offense changed, and Lopez found himself reduced to a lesser role.
“I wasn’t playing as much as I had in the beginning,” Lopez said. “The new system was like putting Tim Duncan in the Clippers offense. It just didn’t work.”
He then decided to transfer to Utah State, where he played in 23 games during the 2012-13 season. He was now part of a well-known PAC-12 program and seemed to be finding his niche with the Aggies.
But for Lopez, family comes before everything. At the age of 11, he lost his mother. He then moved in with his grandparents in Erial, New Jersey, where he was raised. After his sophomore season with Utah State, Lopez’s grandfather was diagnosed with a condition that required extra care. The center acknowledged that it was hard leaving Utah State, but he settled in nicely in Lawrenceville.
“It was a huge difference to go from playing in front of 12,000 people every game to a much smaller feel here at Rider, but I like it,” Lopez said. “And my grandpop is doing really well now.”
Lopez is leading the MAAC in field goal percentage and is third in the conference in rebounds. His presence inside the paint has been key for Rider, but was lost on Feb. 19 when he went down with an apparent knee injury midway through the second half against Quinnipiac.
Trailing by 22 at the time, the Bobcats took advantage of Lopez’s absence and went on a 31-12 run to pull within 4. While senior Junior Fortunat had the tough task of replacing Lopez, the Broncs escaped with a 94-83 win, but struggled without his presence in the loss against Niagara on Feb. 21.
Though Rider was projected to finish seventh in the MAAC during preseason polls, the Broncs now sit in sole possession of second place, behind only Iona. With a first-round bye in the upcoming MAAC tournament, the Broncs have an opportunity to obtain their first NCAA Tournament bid since 1994.
Despite the trio of transfers being important to the success, Baggett credits everyone who has been involved.
“It’s about the alums, the former players, the former coaches, who have worked so hard to put Rider back on the map,” Baggett said. “We talk about it at practice, that we are a part of something bigger than just this immediate group of guys.”