Saturday, May 5, 2012

Rider Men's Report: Resilient Squad Looks For More

Here's another in the series looking back and ahead at conference programs.

Up now ...


2011-12 RECORD: 10-8 in MAAC play, 13-19 overall.

2011-12 RECAP: Almost as many ups and downs as an elevator. A terrible start, followed by a nice mid-season turnaround, followed by some mediocre play, followed by two terrific wins to end the regular season, followed by a first-round ouster in the conference tournament. Still, an above-.500 finish in league play, which included season-ending victories over Loyola and Fairfield, the teams that competed in the MAAC tournament's championship game. But, then, the Broncs lost to Fairfield in the tournament's quarterfinal round when, trailing by two points with seven seconds left it failed to get a rebound on a missed Stags' free throw. Still, Rider had a chance to tie it but a missed tip in attempt after a purposely missed free throw in the final second ended a classic of a game. Still, many positive points but none of them early as the team struggled with a two-game suspension to point guard Jonathan Thompson to start the season, missing freshman front-court player Junior Fortunat for 10 games while waiting for his clearance from the NCAA and lingering knee issues of senior forward Novar Gadson. It added up to a 1-10 start and if head coach Tommy Dempsey takes anything from the past season it is that his team never gave up. When things finally fell into place Rider followed the 1-10 start with a 5-1 burst. But, then, that was followed by a 5-7 stretch before the two late-season wins over Loyola and Fairfield. Despite the sub-.500 overall record the 82 wins over the past four seasons was the all-time best for the program.

WHAT WENT RIGHT: The late-season victories over Loyola and Fairfield certainly was the high point. That the team forged on despite the 1-10 start was also rewarding. "The guys hung together," said Dempsey. "It could have been a 5-25 season but we stayed together and found a way to fight right to the finish line." It didn't hurt that the 6-7 senior forward Gadson's knee improved as the season went on. He was at his best late, scoring 79 points in the team's last four games and finished with 1,475 career points. Still, his 10.7 point/3.5 rebound average as a senior was a drop from 13.7/5.5 as a junior. Guard Jeff Jones, a one-year transfer from Virginia, was also slow to fit in early but came on as chemistry developed and had a team-best 13.4 points per game average. Brandon Penn, a senior forward who barely played as a freshman, continued a four-year upward swing averaging 12 points and 6.5 rebounds and earning second-team all-league honors. Sophomore forward Daniel Stewart (11.1, 6.6) improved on a freshman season in which he was the MAAC's Rookie of the Year. Thompson was second in the league in assists (4.7), Fortunat (3.8, 2.9) looked promising and the team had five players average double figures, the fifth being sophomore swingman Anthony Myles (10.1).

WHAT WENT WRONG: The horrendous start, which doomed the Broncs to a sub-.500 overall record. Thompson missed the first two games, Fortunate missed the first 10 waiting for NCAA clearance and Gadson was never 100 percent, although he got close by year's end. All that, coupled with incorporating Jones as the team's top scoring threat, caused considerable time for chemistry to develop. After the slow start the team went 12-9, not terrific but certainly commendable considering how bad things looked early. The schedule was also as tough as it got in the MAAC. Before Jan. 1 the Broncs had played nine opponents who would go on to national post-season tournaments. And, just when the Broncs seemed to be at their best late in the season they dropped a tough 65-63 decision that they nearly tied with a tip-in off a purposely missed free throw with a second remaining. If nothing else Rider proved itself to be a very dangerous team and resilient team.

WHAT'S AHEAD: The team's top two scorers (Jones and Penn) and its best player (Gadson, at least when he was healthy) are all gone. Still, there is much coming back and an exciting scorer coming in who could more than make up for the team's graduating offensive production. That would be former St. John's guard Nurideen Lindsey, who averaged 11.8 points and 4.9 rebounds in nine games for the Johnnies last season before transferring. He initially announced he would attend Arkansas, but saw his waiver to play there immediately next season turned down by the NCAA. Then, the Philadelphia native opted for Rider where, some sources indicate, he might get a positive ruling on his waiver application and be eligible to play right away. If not, he's eligible for the second semester and for one full season after that. Lindsey, who attended Philly's Overbrook H.S., averaged 35.8 points per game one season there and led the high-level Philadelphia Public High School League in scoring twice. He has the type talent that often doesn't fall to the MAAC, but that doesn't always translate into stardom, so we'll see how he does. Also back is Stewart, who looks like the type of hard-worker who will continued to improve off two already solid seasons. He'll get front-court help from Fortunat. Myles, another capable scorer, returns. Thompson is back as the point guard and yet another perimeter player, 6-0 freshman Eddie Mitchell, had a decent first season and should be in next season's playing group. Tough to tell about incoming freshmen, but 6-2 guard Jamal Nwaniemeka looks like he could contribute after averaging 24.4 points per game at Cornwall-Egan Catholic H.S. in Philly this past season.

PREDICTION FOR 2012-13: Tough to envision any MAAC team beating out Loyola and Manhattan for the top two spots. But if Fortunate improves the Broncs are good enough inside. If the incoming talent fits in, then Rider will be poised for a better record than this past season. If Lindsey's waiver is approved it would help plenty. If it isn't, then Rider will be trying to adjust to an incoming impact player at mid-season, which could upset early season chemistry. A top-five finish looks like a strong possibility, but the team needs some things to fall into place (not out of the question) to legitimately contend.

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