In order to build on a conference season that saw Rider have its strongest finish since 2008, head coach Kevin Baggett knows that he will have to get more out of his freshmen class than ever before.
Senior leader Jon Thompson, a second team All-MAAC selection and the point guard that held the team together, departs, but the majority of a core from a 19-win season stays in tact and they will add four new freshmen to the mix. Two of those freshmen – point guard Jimmie Taylor and forward Khalil Thomas – have a chance to crack the starting lineup sooner rather than later.
The largest concern heading into this season for Baggett will be point guard play; as the likely contenders for the job are the freshman Taylor and sophomore Zedric Sadler.
“If those guys can take care of the ball, get us in our offense, limit their turnovers then we’ll be fine,” Baggett said. “In order to have a successful team, especially offensively, we put a lot on our point guards. I need those guys to respond and do the things we need to do in order for us to be successful.”
Baggett has not dismissed the possibility of giving Taylor the starting point guard job for the start of the season if he can prove that he can handle it.
“He’s got to be a quarterback just like in football,” Baggett said. “He needs to be able to direct, be a leader because that quarterback is a leader on the team, guys are going to rally around and are going to listen to him. Just the maturity part of being the point guard and understanding what we’re trying to get done and just making sure that he can get us in things that I’m asking him to get us into and take care of the ball. He doesn’t need to score a great deal, just make sure he understands where to get the ball, who to get the ball to and in the right places.”
At the start of the year, Baggett named seniors Anthony Myles, Tommy Pereira and Daniel Stewart as captains. The fourth was Sadler. Baggett said the sophomore has already shown the qualities of a leader.
“I just need him to stay healthy for the year,” Baggett said of Sadler who he said has been bothered by patella tendonitis early in practice. “He’s one of those guys that battles so much and plays so hard that he has a tendency to get injury prone. I’m just trying to get to teach him to try and maintain his body and get the proper treatment. We’re going to need him out on the court as much as possible.”
If the Broncs are to repeat last season’s success they will need Stewart to produce while limiting his foul trouble. Last season Stewart scored 10.6 points per game and grabbed 7.2 rebounds per game but led the team with 104 fouls.
“I thought towards the end of the year he didn’t have as much of his legs as he did getting in the middle of the year,” Baggett said about Stewart, who averaged 28.9 minutes per game last season. “Sometimes that’s because we have him playing in the post at the five where he isn’t really a traditional five and he’s having to battle some bigger more physical guys down there.”
“I want to try and keep him at his natural position as much as I can at the four. He still needs to score in the post some for us, but maybe not as much as he’s had to in his first three years here. I’m hoping that will not allow for him to get worn down at the end of the year and he’ll have his legs and be fresh.”
Another place the Broncs could improve in the front court would be with junior Junior Fortunat, who Baggett laid expectations on last year of averaging a double-double, but fell short of those expectations. This season Baggett’s expectations are for him to try and reach that level while staying out of foul trouble, for a player who fouled out of three games last season.
“We need him to be better, we need Junior to get close to a double-double and stay out of foul trouble,” Baggett said. “When he’s on the court and he’s out of foul trouble, he does a lot of good things for us.”
The large difference between this season and last season will be more depth for a team that played nine players for over 10 minutes per game last season. Baggett will want to play almost all of his group, including freshmen Brandon Channer and Xavier Lundy as he refines his rotation for conference play in the first two months.
“The way we want to play get up and down we need depth and need guys to be healthy,” Baggett said. “You need luck at the end of the day and we just ran out of luck last year.”
Rider will also need to find a way to beat Fairfield. The Broncs lost to the Stags three times last season, including during the MAAC tournament. But there’s a lot to build on in Lawrenceville, NJ.
Ryan Restivo covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.