BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – There are lies, damned lies, and statistics as Mr. Twain once told us, of course, and, yes, there are times where the numbers (even advanced ones) only give an obstructed view of what is really transpiring.
However, for the disappointing 2015-16 Rider basketball team, it doesn’t take an advanced degree in hyperbolic topology to figure out what the biggest problem is.
Last season, the Broncs were picked seventh in the preseason MAAC poll, and finished alone in second at 15-5. With a break (or one less injury to senior center Matt Lopez), Rider might have been even better and perhaps wouldn’t have been upset by Saint Peter’s in the MAAC quarterfinals.
A closer look at the 2014-15 MAAC numbers see Rider not only atop the heap in defensive efficiency, but by a wide margin: the Broncs checked in allowing .0937 points per possession with Monmouth a distant second at .0969 (that doesn’t seem like a lot, but over 20 games, it is). Playing mostly zone, the Broncs made life miserable for opponents, and while they graduated Lopez, they didn’t lose a heck of a lot else, so it wasn’t surprising to see Kevin Baggett’s team tied for third (with defending champion Manhattan) in this season’s preseason poll. But after another tough loss 74-70 Friday night to Marcus Gilbert-less Fairfield, Rider is not only 1-7 overall, but a much more concerning 0-2 in the MAAC. Wednesday night at home, the Broncs gave up 1.11 points per possession in a loss to Saint Peter’s. On Friday, against a Stags team that would have been a distant last in offensive efficiency last season if it weren’t for Marist (0.963 ppp), they gave up 1.09 ppp in the first half, and 1.09 again in the second (which would have been more if Fairfield could have connected on late free throws). And the Stags played without All-MAAC preseason selection Gilbert, who was averaging 32.5 points per game in his last two before getting injured against Iona. Baggett didn’t need to have the numbers summarized for him after Friday’s test. His team didn’t pass the eye test on the defensive end.
“We had plenty of breakdowns defensively,” Baggett said. “It’s something we have to get back and work on. We’re just not very good defensively right now. It’s something we hang our hat on and we’ve got all the wrong guys breaking down at the last minute, even with the shot clock breaking down. We’re just not very good at that end right now.” What else did we learn from Webster Bank Arena on Friday night?:
1) This was a massive win for Fairfield Gilbert’s long-term prognosis is good, at the worst he should be back from his ankle injury before the Stags (4-4, 1-1) return to conference play at Manhattan on Jan. 2. While a loss without him might have been understandable, it would have put the Stags at 0-2 in the league and they would have to sit on that for a month. And coming off a pair of seasons where they were 14-49 (9-31 in the MAAC), confidence is still a bit fragile, even with a lot of the positive vibes that have come out of the program. Fairfield was not able to run quite as much as it would have liked (68 possessions), but it got solid performances out of its youngsters: sophomore Tyler Nelson (13 pts., 6 assts., 5 rebs., 1 turnover), and a trio of freshmen: Jonathan Kasibabu (14 pts. on 7-8 shooting), Curtis Cobb (14 pts., 4-6 3-pters), and Matija Milin (13 pts., 6-9 FG). While Rider’s defense certainly was not at its best, allowing defensive penetration, some credit has to go to the Stags, who hit some big shots that had a reasonable high degree of difficulty late. But this was a big win for Johnson in a big season for him as well.
“For us, it kind of validates all the hard work we’re doing as a team,” Johnson said. “We understand how important Marcus is, but we’re 17 guys, we’ve talked about everyone buying in and they’ve all done it. And so we’re getting the wins and the rewards as a team.”
2) So how does Rider fix it?
That’s a little tougher than just identifying the problem. Senior Teddy Okereafor tried to carry the Broncs with 25 and Baggett mixed up the lineup by giving freshman point guard Kealen Ives his first career start, but they probably need to start by not allowing penetration and generally making it tougher on the opponent. Fairfield turned the ball over just nine times (13.2%) and shot 56.2% from inside the arc, two areas where Rider’s zone wreaked havoc in the MAAC last season. There were just too many easy drives and dishes for layups, even when Baggett switched to man for most of the second half.
“We’re not playing smart right now,” Okereafor said. “Too many breakdowns on defense. It jsut snowballs when that happened and we’re not turning it around quick enough.
3) Might remember Jonathan Kasibabu’s name
Originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kasibabu is listed at 6’8”, but seems to play bigger in the paint. Coming off a MAAC Rookie of the Week performance, he had 8 rebounds and two blocks and might have had the highlight of the night (along with a behind-the-back assist from Nelson). Kasibabu appeared to be stopped on a drive, but accelerated by his defender and threw down a posterizing dunk. He is still a bit raw, but his athleticism is one of the reasons the Stags have survived without Amadou Sidibe, and Kasibabu is a big cog in Johnson’s pushing tempo this season, having a 6’8”, 240-pound big man that can run is invaluable at this level.
One method of erasing some of the demons of the last couple seasons is to bring in people who weren’t even there for them. Kasibabu went from the DRC to play a little bit in Europe and then made to the Westtown School in Pennsylvania. And last year isn’t even a distant memory because he was involved in none of it.
“I don’t know much about last year, to be honest,” Kasibabu said. “What we’ve been doing in practice is pretty much what you see in games, so we just do what we do.”.
— Fairfield Athletics (@FairfieldStags) December 5, 2015