Unable to advance past quarterfinals in MAAC Tournament under Kevin Baggett, Rider carries No. 1 seed into action Friday against Saint Peter's. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)
ALBANY, NY -- This season has already surpassed even the highest expectations for most Rider fans, and possibly even some inside the Broncs' program. However, head coach Kevin Baggett will be the first to tell you that there is still a lot more basketball to be played.
The unlikely top seed in this year's Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament after clinching a share of the regular season title, and already assured a berth in the National Invitation Tournament at the very least, Rider (22-8) finally raises the curtain on its highly anticipated postseason run Friday evening, meeting Saint Peter's in the quarterfinal round of the MAAC Tournament at the Times Union Center.
"We're just happy to be a No. 1 seed," Baggett said of the Broncs' potential road to a championship moment. "We had not been that since, I think, 2002, so we're not worried about history. "One of our accomplishments was to win the league, which we did. Then the next one would be for us to go up and see what we get done at the tournament."
Rider having never won a MAAC title has already been brought up in conversations going into the weekend, as has this particularly unflattering statistic: In each of Baggett's first five years at the helm, the Broncs have never advanced past the quarterfinals in either Springfield or Albany, including two losses as the No. 2 seed, in 2013 to Fairfield and three years ago against the same Saint Peter's team that he leads his program into battle against on Friday.
"I'm also tired of being reminded I haven't gotten past the quarterfinals," Baggett bristled. "But it's not about me. It's about our guys, about the group. They've come together in such a short period of time that I never think about myself or whatever history I've established as a coach. It's about those guys and trying to win for them."
This year's incarnation of the Broncs, despite their seemingly perennial struggles at the free throw line, are deep, versatile, and exceptionally gifted on the offensive end. Five players, led by first team all-MAAC forward Dimencio Vaughn and sophomore point guard Stevie Jordan, average 10 or more points per game for a team whose last act before the tournament began was to put up 110 points against longtime MAAC juggernaut Iona in Sunday's regular season finale.
"This group, they're different," Baggett assessed, highlighting the promising results in the Las Vegas Classic in November, an in-season tournament that afforded Rider the chance to develop stamina for a setting such as the one into which they enter on Friday. "They block the other stuff out, they block the history out. It's a different team, and I trust them."
Against Saint Peter's, a gritty, defensive-minded team who already has a come-from-behind win on its ledger this week after wiping out a 15-point deficit to stun Monmouth in its tournament opener, the Broncs will face a team who turned both of the New Jersey rivals' regular-season meetings into wars that Rider was fortunate to emerge from victorious in each encounter. The same survive-and-advance mentality will be on full display in the third battle, as will the quest to silence the skeptics once more.
"History is made to be rewritten," Baggett said, citing the seven-year drought that the No. 1 seed has experienced in the MAAC since Siena won the last of its three consecutive crowns in 2010. "I'm hoping that we can rewrite that -- and go up there and change that -- so they can stop saying that same comment about the 1-seed."