Thursday, January 8, 2009

Big Game is Title Contest Rematch

A new season is shaping up to be very similar to the old season.

A year ago Siena and Rider not only finished tied atop the final regular-season standings but met in the championship game of the MAAC's post-season tournament.

Siena romped in the title game, 74-53, but the score surely would have been much closer and, possibly, the outcome different had the Broncs been at full strength. Standout swingman Ryan Thompson (concussion) missed that game, and the effective starting backcourt of point guard Justin Robinson and two-guard Hansell Mansell were both severely and noticeably limited with ankle injuries.

The first rematch comes on Friday (Jan. 9), an early regular-season contest at Albany's Times Union Center. Siena (4-0 in MAAC play) and Rider (3-0) are two of three teams (Niagara at 3-0 is the other) still unbeaten in conference play. No other MAAC team has fewer than two losses in league play thus far.

In terms of an early season measuring stick, this is about as good as it gets, at least until Niagara gets involved in a game with Friday's winner.

But, that's about it.

Rider coach Tommy Dempsey was asked, in a recent conference call, if a win Friday would avenge the loss to Siena in last season's MAAC tournament championship game.

"We haven't even talked about that," said Dempsey. "The only way for us to avenge last year's loss is in (this coming) March. We won't be able to avenge anything Friday night. It hasn't even creeped into our discussion."

Both teams are similar to a year ago, although the Broncs suffered, literally, a big loss with the graduation and move to the NBA of its 6-foot-11 2007-08 Player of the Year Jason Thompson.

Siena lost just one solid contributor, reserve guard Tay Fisher, off last season's team. But the Saints have been bothered with injuries this year. Its starting center from a year ago, 6-7 Josh Duell, has been banged up and less than 100 percent for most of the season. And, in the Saints' 91-84 loss at Kansas on Tuesday, Duell suffered a still-to-be diagnosed knee injury and likely won't play on Friday. A key front-court reserve, 6-7 Corey Magee (concussion) has yet to play this season.

Rider has also been hit by some injuries this season. Mansell injured an elbow early in the season and has missed four games so far. Robinson and freshman forward Jermaine Jackson both had knee problems in November and both are just rounding into form.

The Broncs are also extremely young with only two seniors and a junior among their top 10 players.

The 6-foot-6 Ryan Thompson, a junior, is Rider's top player leading the team in scoring (16.8), rebounding (6.7) and assists (3.1), while shooting 51 % from the floor.

Thompson might be the best player in the MAAC, and among the top two or three at the very least.

"He's one of the best, and he might be the most versatile in the league," said Dempsey.

Proof of that came when Dempsey moved Thompson to the point in late December.

"It has been a good move for us," said the Rider coach. "We felt we needed to get the ball in his hands more. He creates a lot of matchup problems, and sees over the defense. He's a very willing passer, almost to a fault. Against Marist (a 76-65 Rider victory on Jan. 4) he only took seven shots, and we're not comfortable with that. We need him to take 15-to-18 shots per game. He's worried that he's not averaging enough assists."

Thompson's move to the point has allowed Robinson, who was effective there as a freshman a year ago, to become more of a shooting threat.

Dempsey envisions Friday's game as a good test for his still-developing team.

"We're not in a must-win situation," he said. "We're in a must-improve situation. We've taken a step forward in the last few weeks. This is good chance against a great team to see where we stand. If we lose, it's not the end of the world and if we win it won't mean anything other than we're 4-0 in the league and, then, we'll have to get ready to play Iona (on Sunday).

"Our focus is on improving and becoming a dangerous team as the season goes on. I'm not sure we're where we need to go yet, but this will be a good gauge for us."

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