Here's another in the series previewing the men's upcoming MAAC tournament:
No. 3 Rider (13-5, 22-9) vs. No. 6 Canisius (9-9, 15-14), Saturday, 10 p.m.
WHAT RIDER HAS: Terrific momentum with an active 5-game winning streak and victories on 10 of its last 12 games, including decisions over Fairfield, Saint Peter's, Iona and two over Loyola. Veteran leadership from its best player, senior guard Justin Robinson. Also, bruising inside play from senior forward Mike Ringold and a nice finesse counterpart in junior forward Novar Gadson. Also, terrific long-range shooting. Robinson (81) has more three-pointers than any other MAAC player and two other teammates Brandon Penn (46) and Gadson (38) are legitimate long-range threats. As a team Rider shoots a league-best .405 percent from beyond the stripe, and the next best in the conference is Iona at .365 percent.
WHAT CANISIUS HAS: Some program accomplishments: Another 15-win season so far, after getting 15 last year, too, the first back-to-back 15-win seasons since 1995-96 and 1996-97. It also avoided the play-in round for the first time since 1998-99. But, that's all relative. It did still finish in 6th place in the MAAC. But, it has wins over both Rider and Saint Peter's in recent weeks. It also has as many veteran players as any conference team. In a way Canisius is "all in" this year with five of its top seven players (including its three leading scorers) all graduating this May. It also has a good outside attack with five players hitting at least 25 three-pointers this year.
WHAT RIDER DOESN'T HAVE: A true "big" man, with the 6-7 Ringold doing the bulk of the inside work. Still, Rider only gets outrebounded by less than one per contest. And there's this: The Broncs' last loss was at home to Canisius, its first-round foe. But there's a reason why Rider has 22 overall victories, second-most among conference teams. It's because there aren't a lot of glaring weaknesses.
WHAT CANISIUS DOESN'T HAVE: Like several conference teams, the Golden Griffins are overly big in the middle, maxing out height-wise with 6-foot-7 Greg Loggins and 6-7 reserve Tomas Vazquez-Simmons. Still, the team was outrebounded by less than one per game. It also doesn't have the consistency often associated with veteran teams, having won three straight just once all season, but it does come in with momentum having won its last two regular-season games.
HOW RIDER CAN WIN: Just keep playing the way it has for the last few weeks, but it needs to figure out a way to better contend with Canisius. Robinson doesn't get flustered running the team and can also contribute points in bunches, which makes opponents have to play his teammates honestly. Amazingly Rider made a four-game improvement in its conference record after a 9-9 finish last year with, basically, the same cast along with since-graduated Ryan Thompson, its best player in 2009-10. It's proof that a balanced attack works better than trying to filter much of the attack through one player. Coach Tommy Dempsey picked his team to finish first prior to the 2009-10 season. He might only have been a year too soon with that prediction.
HOW CANISIUS CAN WIN: The whole cast returned with the exception of graduated standout Frank Turner, and South Florida transfer sophomore Gaby Belardo stepped in nicely, even making three late-game game-winning shots this season. Several league coaches view Canisius as the most-dangerous team among those the so-called non-favorites to win this event, and for good reason. If the outside shojts are falling, and the team pounds the boards effectively it certainly can be dangerous.
TOMMY DEMPSEY OF RIDER: "We've won 16 of our last 20 and we have been playing well, but judgment weekend is upon us. We know we have to play great to have any chance. We have a senior class that has provided good leadership on the court and in the lockerroom. We just had a sense that last year was a disappointing one so those guys (the seniors) stepped up to provide great leasdership for the past 11 months, and that goes a long way to have springboarded us into this season. It's also really important to have played in these games before. We're one of the older teams in the league as far as having big games under your belt. We're hoping that means something."
TOM PARROTTA OF CANISIUS: "We snuck into sixth place, avoided the play-in game and, now, have a great match-up with Rider. But we don't look at that as an accomplishment; I thought we could have finished higher. Still, if it's an easier way to get to Monday night's championship game, I'm very, very happy with that. We're aiming much higher (than being the 6th-best team) in the tournament. We beat them (Rider) at their place and they beat us by one in Buffalo. It will be two teams that go at it tooth and nail. Hopefully our seniors continue to play well and, perhaps, win this game and continue to move on.. We feel good about ourselves right now. And, I like this position a whole lot better by not having to play that first day (in the play-in round)."
WHAT'S AT STAKE: A trip to the semifinal round where second-place Iona could be waiting (if the Gaels beat the Siena-Manhattan play-in game winner). For Rider, though, another win to add to its 22-victory total so far would likely sew up a minor post-season tournament berth.