Monday, November 22, 2010

Rider's Fast Start Raises Expectations

A year ago at this time things could hardly have looked much better for the Rider men's basketball team.

The team was good enough for its own coach, Tommy Dempsey, to pick it to win the MAAC's regular-season title in the preseason coaches' poll and there certainly was some justification for that confidence.

More came in the team's season opener when it traveled to Mississippi State and put an 88-74 thumping on a team rated 15th nationally at the time.

There was one more victory immediately after, a win over Lehigh. And, then, even Dempsey admits the rest of the season didn't go as expected.

After beating Lehigh, Rider went 15-16 in its final 31 games including a 9-9 record against MAAC opponents.

Win a league title? Not even close, especially when it lost its two regular-season games against Siena, the team that did win the MAAC championship, by a combined margin of 48 points.

What has the new year brought? Another early season demolition of a solid team from a power conference on the road, a 77-57 victory at USC on November. 17.

The difference, so far, is that the Broncs haven't immediately destructed. They followed that up with a pair of victories in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic in Springfield, Mass., topping TCU, 76-61, and Loyola-Marymount, 73-63.

Rider's is 4-1 thus far (its only loss was a 77-67 decision at UMass), the best record of any conference team as it approaches Friday's start of league play when it hosts Siena.

The Broncs are certainly poised to exceed expectations (ahem ... your blogger picked them to finish eighth), rather than failing to meet them like a year ago.

All that might happen even without graduated 6-foot-6 swingman Ryan Thompson, its singular star of a year ago. Otherwise, though, every player of significance returns. The Broncs are a veteran team in a league where having quality veterans traditionally means team success.

"It was a learning experience, what we went through last year," said Dempsey, in a recent phone interview. "Just because you win at Mississippi State doesn't entitle you to have a good season, but we went through that. When we won that game last year we starting thinking things would get easy ... that because we beat them we'd beat everyone else on the schedule. It was a poor approach.

"How we handle the success of winning (at USC) still has to play out, but we came back and beat a really good TCU team and, then, beat a talented Loyola-Marymount team. This year is a lot different. Last year we thought we were really good, but as soon as you start thinking you're really good you stop getting better. Beating USC was a nice win for our program and the league, but we know we'll be judged by how we do in league play."

If the first five games are any indication, then there's no reason to think Rider can't realize some of the hopes for league success left over from a year ago.

Senior guard Justin Robinson, primarily a second fiddle to Thompson's virtuoso act in recent years, has stepped up nicely thus far, averaging 17 points and 3.6 assists through five games. And, it would be hard to find a better performance than the one he turned in against USC: 28 points on 9-of-10 shooting from the floor, 5-of-5 from three-point territory and 5-of-5 from the foul line.

The Broncs' veteran forwards, junior Novar Gadson (13.6 points per game) and senior Mike Ringold (12.6 points, 6.0 rebounds) have been solid thus far, as has junior forward Brandon Penn (6.2 points). And, freshmen forward Danny Stewart (4.6 points, 5.4 rebounds) and guard Anthony Myles (6.0 points) have contributed as has the latest Thompson, Jonathon (no relation), a sophomore guard averaging 4.2 points.

Thus far the Broncs have depth (eight players average at least 16 minutes per game) and efficiency ... how about a .522 field goal percentage through five games?

Yet other than a year's maturity, a couple of contributing freshmen and the absence of Ryan Thompson, Rider isn't much different than 2009-10. So, what happened last season?

"There was a lot of pressure on Ryan, not only to lead the team but the pressures of playing in front of NBA scouts every night," said Dempsey. "Plus his brother (6-11 Jason Thompson of the Sacramento Kings) is having NBA success and Ryan wants to get there. It wasn't his fault, it was just there.

"Even some of the other guys, outside of Ryan, at times felt like they were playing for the scouts more than playing for Rider. We got in a bad way as a team. our on-court chemistry wasn't always great. Guys were not playing within roles. You start to do that and you lose games. It gets contagious and it snowballs on you.

"Now, we're more of a team. There aren't a lot of external distractions. We're more focused on winning games. That's something we had to go through ... a learning experience. That team did not expect to struggle like we did. Still we got to the MAAC semifinals and had a winning season (17-16 overall), but in a sense we underachieved. We spent all spring and summer addressing that the last thing we want to be known as is a program that underachieves.

"We don't have an NBA hopeful any more, so we're not as sexy within the league. But, at the same time, we're a very good team with three preseason all-league players (Robinson, Ringold and Gadson). We've got a good freshman class. We've got the makings of a good team that should be helped by going through what we've been through."

There haven't been many underachieving years for Rider, which has had just three losing records overall since joining the MAAC in 1997-98.

"One of the hardest things to do as a mid-major program is to have sustained success," added Dempsey. "I think that we've been one of the programs in our league that hasn't had a lot of ups and downs. We've been a solid program for many years. We don't get maybe credit because we haven't been able to get to the NCAA tournament. But, at the same time, we continue to put a good team on the court every year. We lost a lottery pick (Jason Thompson) and another all-time player (Ryan Thompson) and have not yet had that fall-off."

Dempsey knows doing more than avoiding a fall off this season will likely be determined by the play of Robinson and Ringold.

"Those two could wind up as Hall of Fame players here," said Dempsey. "And, if we win 18 games, they will have more wins than any two teammates who ever played here. They've been a big part of that, but they've been in the shadow of Jason and Ryan. They want to go out and leave their own legacy now."

After a 4-1 start, expectations might just be starting to rise again at Rider. And, maybe, the legacy Robinson and Ringold leave behind is more team success than that experienced by either of the Thompson

At least this year the rising expectations at Rider are rooted in more than potential and one early season victory like they were a year ago.

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