Rider Broncs Motivated To Continue Their Winning Ways

Rider head coach Kevin Baggett knows his team will not sneak up on anybody this season. 

The Broncs have swiped second place in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference two of the last three seasons, but have up empty once the conference postseason tips. Baggett finds himself in a beguiling position this season: Rider loses interior presence Matt Lopez, but returns almost every other key piece from a group that won 21 games.

This group should be perimeter oriented than Broncs teams of yore, especially last season’s squad, which wholly on a frontcourt anchor. They return senior Teddy Okereafor, who spent this summer grinding on the Great Britain Senior Men’s team.

“I’m excited for him to take the next step,” Baggett said of Okereafor, a senior point guard who averaged 11.2 ppg and 4.0 apg last season. “I know he’s coming back with a lot of confidence as far as his experience and playing with other pros, so I really need him to take another jump for us to continue to lead this team.”

However, replacing a post presence as outsized as Lopez will fall to a committee of at least three bigs. Baggett plans for juniors Khalil Thomas, sophomore Kenny Grant and true freshman Lacey James to fill those minutes and make up for some of the production.

“We really need those guys to man the middle for us,” Baggett said. “I think those guys combined can help us make up for that and I hope our perimeter will be better than we were last year, understanding that we don’t have Matt, and those guys are going to need to pick up some of that slack.”

Baggett is most expectant of James, a 6’9″ forward from Michigan, but he also hopes that Rider will get a productive return from redshirt freshman Josh Williams, who missed the season after having surgery on both his wrists.

“He’s one of those X-factor guys for us that I’m still trying to figure out ways he fits into the puzzle,” Baggett said. “He’s going to find his way on the court.”

In spite of Rider’s success last season, the team wasn’t an offensive juggernaut, ranking sixth in the MAAC in scoring (65.2 ppg) and sixth (33.4%) in three-point field goal percentage, so to repeat a top tier conference finish, the Broncs’ offense has to improve. Perhaps junior Jimmie Taylor is ready to take that step forward — he averaged 10.5 ppg last season — and if he pairs with a healthy Zedric Sadler, who won MAAC Sixth Man of the Year, to provide a productive back court scoring combination, Rider’s upside couldn’t be higher.

But Baggett’s concern, which is true for nearly every DI coach this time of year, is whether the team can remain as defensively-minded approach as it has been since 2013. Last season was a defensive pinnacle, allowing just 63.7 ppg, which ranked third in conference. Keeping that approach could be Rider’s biggest obstacle to attaining a MAAC championship, a first under Baggett.

“The biggest success that we’ve had is that we’ve had a lot of guys be able to step up,” Baggett said. When he succeeded Tommy Dempsey, who left New Jersey for the chilly environs of Binghamton, Baggett deviated from Dempsey’s formula. He believes the squad’s depth in 2016 will be a linchpin. “We’ve been fortunate to be able to recruit a lot of talent in there and then really, more or less, play 10 guys double-digit minutes.”

“It allows guys to come to practice with the right mentality, attitude and understanding that you’re going to play, so you have to show up to practice. You have to show up with the right attitude and excitement knowing that you’re going to have an opportunity to play and then secondly the competition, just the practice alone, if you have that type of talent on your own then guys are competing and it only makes your team better.”

Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2015-16 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.

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