Thursday, July 20, 2017

Baggett and Rider hopeful to take next step in MAAC this season

Kevin Baggett has guided Rider to tangible success in his first five years with Broncs, and is hopeful that his program can emerge from wide-open MAAC race to forge a run deep into March. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

For all the success Kevin Baggett has had in five years as head coach at Rider, he recognizes the biggest criticism he has received in his tenure at the reins of the Broncs.

Despite 85 wins and a pair of postseason appearances, definitely nothing to sneeze at for a program whose last NCAA Tournament berth came in 1994, he has yet to take Rider past the quarterfinals of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament. With that said, though, the prevailing feeling in Lawrenceville is one of hope and tempered confidence as the Broncs replace four seniors from last season's 18-win unit.

"They know it's not really about winning games anymore," Baggett stated with regard to the higher expectations for Rider, who has traditionally remained in the top half of the conference more often than not since he replaced Tommy Dempsey in 2012. "It's about winning the league, it's about trying to win that MAAC tournament."

"Really, the biggest knock on me at this point is being able to get past the quarterfinal game," he admitted. "They know how adamant I am about taking the next step in this program, taking the next step in the tournament, and I think our guys are really focused this summer on getting better, and especially buying in and being a team. We've got a lot of new moving parts who I'm excited about. The league is interesting."

The Rider team that takes the floor this season, beginning November 10 against Hampton, will have a much different look than the group that fans had come to know over recent years. Gone are all-MAAC talents Jimmie Taylor and Kahlil Thomas, as well as swingman Xavier Lundy and big man Norville Carey, all of whom graduated. With sophomore point guard Stevie Jordan now entrenched as the leader in the backcourt, his fellow classmate Tyere Marshall will take on a bigger role in the lineup as he looks to build on the encouraging end to his rookie season that has his head coach optimistic about what lies ahead.

"He's one of those young men I'm really excited about," Baggett said of Marshall, gushing over the potential of the Philadelphia native. "He's growing, he's working hard in the weight room, having confidence in the way he finished down the stretch. Obviously, he's got some time to fill Kahlil's shoes, but he's excited about it and we're excited about him taking the next step and being a guy that's going to have to play more minutes down in the paint and working on his perimeter game too, not just being a one-dimensional player."

"The one thing I'm really excited about is he's growing up, he's embracing the fact that he knows that Kahlil is gone and Norville's gone," he elaborated. "Those are a lot of points, a lot of rebounds that he's going to have to make up. He's willing to take up the challenge and I'm excited for him. He's got a huge upside, and I just think the sky's the limit for him. He's got a great way about him, on and off the court."

Jordan and Marshall headline a Rider team that gets frontcourt reinforcement from Devine Eke and Frederick Scott, who sat out last season after transferring from Maine and DePaul, respectively. In the backcourt, Kealen Washington-Ives and Anthony Durham return for their junior seasons while Jordan Allen, a partial qualifier last season, makes his long-awaited arrival to a guard stable that will need to replace one of the program's best shooters in Taylor.

"Jordan Allen is a young man that can really shoot it," said Baggett of the 6-foot-3 native of Delaware. "Frederick Scott can play the two, three, or four; and maybe at times when we go small, might even end up at the five a little bit. Devine Eke averaged ten points and five rebounds at Maine, and he's done a good job this past year getting himself better, developing his perimeter game."

The pieces are certainly in place for Rider to make an impact, and with the offensive firepower displayed at the end of last season, the Broncs finally have a complement to a defense that has consistently been among the MAAC's strongest when looked at from a points-per-possession perspective. The key, however, is consistency, and such a concern has been imperative for Baggett to address this offseason.

"I'm just looking for our guys to just get better every day, come together as a team, play as one," he said. "This roster is set for some years here. We don't have a senior on our roster. I need some guys to step up and be leaders, being that we lost a lot of leadership. I'm just looking for a complete team to where night in and night out, different guys are going to be guys who contribute and not be one or two individuals. I want to go back to playing a number of guys, at least nine or ten guys a game, getting up and down, pressing. At the end of the day, I'm still trying to figure out the league, but we've just got to worry about ourselves. Good things happen when you do those things and you play as a team."

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