It wouldn’t take long to find clips of every MAAC coach saying — at some point — in press conferences a variation of “anybody can beat anybody on any given day.”
Few games don’t come with long, drawn out scoring runs — or more accurately, scoring droughts — for both teams. Rick Pitino’s Iona and Carmen Maciariello’s Siena have gotten most of the hype nationally around the league, but after this weekend, neither occupies first place. After seven straight wins, the Rider Broncs have climbed their way up to 10-3 in the league and the top spot, a half-game ahead of Iona, whom they hold the tiebreaker over regardless.
Rider has played brilliant MAAC basketball, matching up perfectly with their opponents and playing to their advantage over the course of the winning streak.
Rider returned four of five starters from a team that came on towards the end of the 2021-22 MAAC season. In my MAAC Season Preview, I picked Rider to finish second, and that didn’t look great in non-conference play. Rider lost two games in Dublin against Stetson and Central Arkansas in the MAAC/ASUN Challenge, and finished non-conference play with a record of 3-6.
Rider started conference play with three close wins against three teams who have been a part of the bottom of the conference picture, but then fell three times in a row, including at Siena on Jan. 8. Since then, a switch flipped. Seven straight wins catapulted the Broncs to the top of the league standings with just seven games to go. So, what’s the secret sauce from head coach Kevin Baggett?
Athleticism and Rebounding
Rider has the most athletic front court in the MAAC, with Mervin James and Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson, as well as impactful minutes out of Tyrel Bladen, Tariq Ingraham, and Nehemiah Benson. James in particular is one of the best rebounders in the MAAC, regardless of position, and he helps the Broncs immensely as an elite rebounding team.
Rider is No. 1 in the MAAC in offensive rebounds, and No. 1 in the MAAC in field goal percentage on second-chance field goals.
Forcing 3s and Interior Defense
The MAAC as a league is 30 out of 32 in league 3-point percentage, and 31 out of 32 in 3PA/FGA. There’s simply not a ton of elite shooters in the MAAC, and there’s not a lot of high-level shooting teams in the MAAC.
Rider embraces that by keeping teams on the perimeter on offense. All of Rider’s players are athletic and strong defenders that can slide on the perimeter, even their front court players can do this. Ogemuno-Johnson has put in some excellent man-to-man defensive possessions on the perimeter to force teams to shoot the long ball.
Marist, a team that doesn’t shoot well from 3, attempted 64 treys in two games against Rider. Manhattan attempted 52 deep balls in two games against Rider, and Canisius attempted a whopping 37 outside shots in one game against the Broncs. Rider is excellent at forcing offenses to operate on the perimeter and keep them out of the paint. It’s why, despite not having an elite rim protector, the Broncs keep teams out of the paint at a very high level.
Attacking the Basket
Based on the same principles that help their defense in the MAAC, the Broncs emphasize everything inside the arc on offense. The Broncs are in the 89th percentile in points per possession on the post-up, with a variety of players being great in that department.
James’ combination of size and strength, along with the ability to handle the ball to some extent, gives him the chance to take advantage of mismatches when he’s matched up with a guard.
Manhattan zoned up Rider a lot, and while Rider didn’t do a great job of shotmaking for portions of the game, Rider killed them on the offensive glass. This is what they do, second chance points. pic.twitter.com/YSMQspugO1— Sam Federman (@Sam_Federman) February 6, 2023
James scores 9.38 points in the paint per game in MAAC play on 56.5% in those same games. Ogemuno-Johnson is also a high level post-scorer, with nearly five points per game in the paint on excellent efficiency. Ingraham is in the 93rd percentile in post-up efficiency, and while he has his issues turning the ball over, once he gets the shot up, it’s probably going to go in. Bladen has also put up some really great numbers in the post-up.
The Broncs’ offensive rebounding leads to second-chance points, as mentioned earlier, and when Manhattan tried to zone them up, Rider was able to hit 3-pointers off those rebounds, even though that’s not their game.
Rider’s guards have played at a high level during the win streak, especially Dwight Murray Jr, who will likely make the All-MAAC First Team. Murray is a confident ball handler and he is a really good passer, facilitating the offense, and getting the ball into the paint.
Murray’s ability to hit tough shots over defenders in the paint opens up passing lanes to get the ball to cutters, and the Broncs are in the 83rd percentile in efficiency and frequency when finding cutters. Even though Murray’s assist rate isn’t particularly high, he’s a floor general for this team, creating offense in transition, and in the half-court. Murray is also the most consistent volume three-point shooter for the Broncs, shooting 39% on 4 1/2 attempts per game.
Murray hit the game-winning shot against Iona in the MAAC Tournament last year, and the game-winning shot against Iona in the first game of the win streak this year, to cap off a massive comeback. This is part of a long line of late-game heroics in the MAAC this year.
The emergence of Corey McKeithan has been extremely important, giving Rider another ball-handling option. He’s played 14 minutes per game over the course of the winning streak, shooting 48% from the field, and only turning the ball over twice. Having McKeithan allows Murray to play a little bit more off the ball, and creates openings for others on the team. Adetokunbo Bakare’s shotmaking has also given Rider a boost, helping them come back into games.
Allen Powell hasn’t quite had the season that he thought he’d have, but he's made clutch baskets for Rider, and he’s been another solid ball-handling option. Zahrion Blue has also played some excellent minutes for the Broncs, being a high-level rebounder and defender at the guard spot.
The depth and poise that the guards have for Rider has complemented the front court perfectly, and allowed Rider to win different types of games.
Free throws are the most under appreciated part of basketball. If you can’t make free throws, it’s hard to win close games. For years, Rider languished in the low 60’s near the very bottom of the national leaderboards in free-throw percentage, but that’s changed. This year Rider is shooting 76.2% from the line, 28th in the country. Rider is comfortable with putting pretty much any of their main usage players at the line, and having them make shots. The lowest FT% of any of their top six usage players is just below 70%, and the other five are all above 77%.
Rider’s players have been through the MAAC grind. Between Murray, James, Ogemuno-Johnson, and Powell, they’ve all played over 100 games at the college level, with Ogemuno-Johnson nearing the all-time games played record for the Broncs. Having this level of experience works very well to playing high-level MAAC basketball, which is exactly what the Broncs do. While Rider doesn’t have the talent that Iona does, nor are they as complete as Siena, they’ve made it work at a high level.
While the top seed in the MAAC Tournament is still up for grabs, and it wouldn’t be a major shock to see the Broncs as the third, or maybe even fourth seed. Knowing how fickle the league is, there’s no doubt that they’ll be a team to watch out for in Atlantic City.