Kahlil Thomas' breakout junior season kept Rider in contention for a top-five finish through most of MAAC regular season. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)
By Brandon Scalea (@brandonscalea)
The only question mark heading into Rider’s 2015-16 campaign was how head coach Kevin Baggett was going to fill the void left by the departure of center Matt Lopez.
After all, the once-promising 2014-15 squad self-destructed after he went down with a torn ACL late in the season.
Junior Kahlil Thomas, seldom used in his first two seasons with the Broncs, surprised a lot of people with his play, and had a lot of Rider fans forgetting Lopez ever donned the cranberry and white. He finished the season with 12 double-doubles, and was a presence in the paint the Broncs desperately needed, especially with an offense that still revolved around a big man. Thomas led the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in field-goal percentage and finished second in rebounding, behind only Siena’s Brett Bisping.
The 6-foot-7 Florida native said he wasn’t trying to replace Lopez, but he learned a lot from him the year before.
“I wouldn’t say I was filling his shoes or anything like that, but when we played together we kind of played side by side,” he said. “But I was just trying to be myself out there. I just go out and play as hard as I can for as long as I can.”
Despite Thomas’ breakout year, Rider still managed to struggle offensively at times. It also struggled mightily with closing out games, a key in its 8-12 conference record — 12-19 overall. That record was good for an eighth-place finish in MAAC play.
“Some games, we looked like this All-America team,” Thomas said. “Other times, we didn’t. To keep the consistency [for next season] we just need to keep having good practices, keep working on getting better. We can’t be sluggish one night and then great the next. We’ve got to be ready to play every night.”
The game that essentially defined Rider’s up-and-down type year was a Feb. 12 contest against eventual regular season champion Monmouth. The game was televised on ESPNU, and Alumni Gym was pulsating over an hour before tipoff.
In the first half, the Broncs struggled to keep up with the high-flying Hawks, but managed to keep the deficit to just nine at halftime. In the second half, Rider came out of the gate and played its best basketball of the season, going on an incredible 31-9 run in which it made seven consecutive three-pointers. They led by as much as 16, but it still was not enough. All it really had to do was hang on to the ball in the final minutes, but a late collapse ended with a Justin Robinson game-winner with three ticks left.
Exhilarating and heartbreaking could define that game and most of Rider’s season. According to Thomas, there were a lot of positives to take out of that game, despite the loss.
“That Monmouth game was the best game I ever played in my life,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever have that type of atmosphere and that type of game again. We know our best basketball came out that night and we know we have the potential to play like that consistently.”
Two weeks later, the Broncs were blown out at Monmouth before a third meeting between the two in-state rivals in the quarterfinal of the MAAC tournament. The Hawks won that one, too.
Like the rest of the team, graduate guard Teddy Okereafor had his highs and lows in his final collegiate season. In some games he was the best player on the court, most notably in a double-overtime win over Marist. In a career night, he broke a conference record for made free-throws in a single game with 25. He also finished with 38 points, including the game-tying lay-up with 1.4 seconds left in regulation. On other nights, however, he was simply ineffective. He earned third team All-MAAC honors at season’s end.
In 2016-17, the Broncs will only return five scholarship players: Thomas and fellow seniors Jimmie Taylor and Xavier Lundy, as well as junior Anthony Durham and sophomore Kealen Ives. They have recently picked up two transfers: Devine Eke from Maine, and Norville Carey from Southern Mississippi. Carey is immediately eligible.