The Rider Broncs enter this weekend’s MAAC tournament as one of the league’s hottest teams. Head coach Kevin Baggett’s squad is averaging an astounding 98.3 points per game over its last three contests, all double-digit wins in which the Broncs shot over 54% from the field.
By virtue of their win at top-seeded Monmouth on New Year’s Eve, Rider (10-10) won their tiebreaker with Canisius and will enter Albany as the #6 seed, slated to play #11 Manhattan on Thursday evening at 9:00 p.m.
Player to watch: #3 Jimmie Taylor, Sr. G
The Broncs play a short lineup, but every member of their senior-laden starting five averages double-figures. Jimmie Taylor paces the squad and ranks tenth in the league with 15.7 ppg. Fellow senior Kahlil Thomas checks in at 14.1 ppg & leads the team, and ranks third in the MAAC with 8.9 rebounds per contest. Both Taylor and Thomas were named to the all-MAAC Third Team earlier this week.
“I think this entire year has been the best stretch of his four years here,” Baggett said of Taylor on a league conference call Monday. “If there’s anybody on this team that I knew what he was gonna’ do night in and night out, it’s definitely been Jimmie. He’s been the most consistent offensively and defensively, and I’m happy for him that he’s having the year that he’s having.”
Stevie Jordan – the lone freshman in the Broncs’ starting lineup – averages 11.5 ppg, and his 5.8 assists per game lead the league. Norville Carey, a graduate transfer from Southern Mississippi, adds 11.3 ppg along with 6.9 rpg, and Xavier Lundy’s 10.7 ppg round out the lineup.
Rider began the conference slate with a 4-1 record including the aforementioned win at Monmouth (the Broncs remain the only team to hand the Hawks a loss on their home court this season), but it was a Friday the 13th visit to Manhattan College that sent Rider into a tailspin.
The Broncs fell to the Jaspers 76-73 in that mid-January meeting, kicking off a 3-9 slide through the heart of the conference season. Manhattan junior Zane Waterman poured in a career-high 35 points in that contest.
It was not until nearly a month later – in a 112-107 shootout against Quinnipiac – when Rider would discover its newfound offensive prowess. Baggett’s crew once again hit the century mark with a 103-85 thrashing of Iona in New Rochelle a week later, then fell one point shy of a third occurrence in a 99-82 win at Quinnipiac in their regular season finale.
“We just have to do a better job defensively,” Baggett said, trying not to lose sight of the other side of the ball. “That’s something I’ve been preaching down this stretch and then going into this tournament. Obviously you need to score, but I think it’s gonna’ come down to getting some stops, and we have to do that more consistently.”
In between the wins at Iona and Quinnipiac, the Broncs once again squared off against the Jaspers. Manhattan held a nine-point advantage at halftime of that contest, but Rider outscored them 49-29 in the second half to win it 93-82. Despite the Broncs coming away with the victory, they were once again burned by Waterman, who added another 30-point performance to his ledger.
“If you know, let me know.” Baggett said, when asked if he had a way to stop Waterman. “He’s played really well against us. He obviously feels comfortable playing against us, we just have to do a better job of limiting his points. He’s averaging 30 points a game against us. Take nothing away from him, but if we’re going to have a chance to win this game, it’s probably going to start with him.”
Taylor and Thomas have both stood out in this season’s meetings with the Jaspers. Thomas led the Broncs with 24 points in the first game and averages 21.0 ppg over the two contests, while Taylor poured in 28 to lead Rider to victory in the second matchup and averages 22.0 ppg against the Jaspers this year.
Rider and Manhattan have already treated fans to two thrilling games in 2017, and Thursday’s nightcap is sure to live up to its predecessors.
“Our guys are excited,” Baggett said of the tournament. “We have some momentum, but we’ve had momentum going into the tournament before and lost. We’ll focus on the one game, Manhattan, and making sure that we’re ready to go and knowing exactly what we need to do to win the game.”
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.