Kevin Baggett has still yet to advance past MAAC Tournament quarterfinals, but has prohibitive conference favorite this season in Rider, who returns almost 95 percent of last year's scoring. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)
Last season yielded exceptional results for Rider, but met the same disappointing end that Broncs fans have long since become accustomed to.
Rider did win 22 games, its 15-3 record in Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play good enough for a share of the regular season conference championship, a promising sign for a team perceived to be one year ahead of schedule last season. However, the good fortune for the Broncs ended once postseason play arrived, a MAAC Tournament quarterfinal loss to Saint Peter's -- the program's sixth straight early exit under head coach Kevin Baggett and third as a number-one or two seed -- serving as the means for relegation into the National Invitation Tournament, where Rider was defeated by Oregon.
For a team such as Rider, who returns nearly 95 percent of its scoring from last season -- of the three players who logged minutes for the Broncs, only one; backup point guard Kealen Washington-Ives, saw significant playing time -- yet another cruel dose of March heartbreak should act as a primary motivating fuel for a stronger ending. And so it has in Lawrenceville, where the reigning regular season titleholders and likely preseason favorite to do the same in 2018-19 are determined to put the one-and-done narrative to rest come March.
"We had a great year -- it was fun -- but at the end of the day, it was disappointing," Baggett said as he recollected the culmination of a dream season that ended in a familiar nightmare. "The way we ended up losing in the conference tournament in the first round, and in general, just losing in the conference tournament after having played so well throughout the entire conference play, that was a gut-check. But the exciting part of it is we arrived early. We accomplished all that we did with a young group."
"It's hard," he admitted. "I know a lot of people want to pin a lot on the conference tournament and how many times I've gone to the tournament or won in the tournament. But when I go and I look back at guys like Kevin Willard -- I looked at his numbers and he ended up going on and doing some really good things at Seton Hall -- it's really hard in our league. The reality is that everything has to go right. It's just one of those unfortunate things that we haven't been able to do."
Rider's youth came to life in a big way down the stretch last season, when redshirt freshman Dimencio Vaughn grew into a stronger force for the Broncs as the pressure intensified. Recovering from a torn ACL suffered early in the 2016-17 season, and also from an incident off the court last summer, the Lower East Side native quickly put any doubters to rest, leading the team in both points and rebounds per game while also shooting nearly 51 percent from the floor and acting as a bright spot on an otherwise dim free throw-shooting team en route to first team all-conference honors.
"He certainly arrived sooner than we thought he would," said Baggett. "We knew he was talented, especially coming off the ACL tear and getting back healthy. With the year that he had and watching him get better throughout the year, it was exciting. That goes for a lot of our guys, but it was exciting to see him -- and all that he'd been through -- to be able to achieve a lot of the things that he achieved. It was good for him, and I'm excited for him. He knows the next step for him is to continue to get better. People are going to be gunning for him day in and day out, and that's the part that he's got to come to grips with. He's one of the better players in the league, and I hope he's ready for it."
Rider would not be Rider without Stevie Jordan, its point guard now entering his junior season as the man who makes the Broncs' motor run. As one of five players who averaged ten or more points per game, not to mention leading the MAAC in assists, Jordan has already demonstrated what it takes to be a team leader over two years, and appears to have learned even more as he begins the second half of his collegiate career.
"Stevie is the heartbeat of this team," Baggett said. "We're only going to go as far as he takes us, as far as he leads us. He's really grown into being a leader, and that's something we really needed him to be, to do. The next step for him is not only just embracing the fact that he can do all of those things, but just leading -- being a great leader -- and especially when things aren't going well for us, we need him to take that next step and make sure that he's an extension of me."
"Those guys are going to listen to him," Baggett added. "They respect him a great deal, they respect everything he gets done, just for him to be able to lead the guys better as a player all the way around. I think the next step for him is just to be a more consistent jump shooter."
While Vaughn and Jordan are the grizzled veterans in the backcourt, a pair of sophomores and a hungry junior make up the front line for the Broncs. Redshirt sophomore Frederick Scott, a third team all-MAAC selection last year, is a power forward who runs the floor like a point guard, reminiscent of former Iona big man David Laury. Jordan Allen is a true sophomore wing whose volume scoring was a significant boon to Rider's bottom line a year ago. However, the most intriguing piece of the interior trio is Tyere Marshall, an oft-forgotten piece of the arsenal who was a double-figure scorer last season and double-double threat on any given night with his nose for the basketball and relentless hustle.
"I think the one thing that I see is I think Tyere's hungry," said Baggett. "Tyere's hungry for the fact that he's felt like he hasn't gotten the respect he thinks he should get in terms of being one of the better post players in the league. That's really motivating him this offseason. He's really done a great job with his body, really developing his strength, getting in the gym and not only being a post player, but really enhancing his offensive firepower. so to speak. He's playing out on the perimeter, shooting threes, handling the ball now that the modern-day post players aren't back-to-the-basket guys. He understands that, and so I see him getting better on those things. I really think that Tyere's driven to prove his worth."
"Jordan Allen isn't becoming only a one-dimensional jump shooter," Baggett continued. "He's understanding that guys aren't going to give him much space. He's got to be able to drive it in order to create shot opportunities. He's really been working on that this summer. And then Fred is one of those guys that's just working hard on his body, really developing. He needs to get better at the free throw line, and we're focusing on that. He can score the ball, but we've got to be able to trust him more on the defensive end, especially late in the game and when the game's in the balance, where we need to get a stop here or there."
The Broncs' bench is stabilized with the return of Anthony Durham to the backcourt for his senior season, as well as reserve forwards Devine Eke and Karamoko Cisse. Tyrei Randall is likely to redshirt because Baggett feels it would be unfair to not be able to play him the amount of minutes he feels Randall should receive, but Rider's guard depth has grown even stronger as seniors Ahmad Gilbert and Kimar Williams -- Philadelphia natives who played together at Constitution High School -- are eligible after sitting out last year following their transfers from Minnesota and Florida International, respectively.
"Kimar is another ball handler, a pass-first guy capable of scoring," Baggett said as he described Williams. "The difference between him and Stevie is he's just more of an athletic defender, physical at the basket, can take a hit. He's another guy on the court that can take pressure off of Stevie, get the ball up, can play the point. In our non-conference schedule (which includes trips to West Virginia, VCU, and Washington State), we'll lean on him a lot, because he's another guy who can make decisions for us. I think at the end of the day, he's a quiet leader who needs to be more vocal."
"Ahmad Gilbert is another dimension for us. He'll really get after it on both ends of the court. He's a smart player, kind of like one of those throwback players who really understands how to get to the basket and finish like the old-time players. He's another experienced player who brings a lot to the table for us."
In short, Rider's pieces are in place for a campaign in line with the expectations laid before it. Whether or not the Broncs will finally get over the hump remains to be seen, but early returns out of New Jersey are indicative that the collective frustration of never advancing past Saturday at the conference tournament has taken its toll, its demons hoping to finally be exorcised.
"It's certainly a goal of mine," said Baggett. "I'm just tired of hearing it more than anything else, and at the end of the day, it's not even about that. It's about trying to win that conference tournament and trying to get our university to the NCAA Tournament, which hasn't been done since 1994. That's the bigger goal for me, for our basketball team, and our eyes are on the prize."