Rider was locked a road battle at Marist Friday night, which wasn’t totally unexpected, road games are always difficult in conference, and although the Red Foxes have been in rebuilding mode for a couple of years now, they had picked off a few teams in MAAC play and were already 2-0 in conference this season.
Then, suddenly, it wasn’t a game. You looked up and Rider had a double digit lead and was on its way to a 73-62 road win. There wasn’t a huge run (Stevie Jordan and Jimmie Taylor did hit big three-pointers), but the Broncs outscored Marist 24-11 in the final 8:30 to slowly get away.
Indeed, it is playing much, much faster (more on that below), there isn’t much flashy about Rider. Taylor leads the team averaging 13.6 points per game, but their two biggest assets are their consistency and defense, two things that aren’t exactly going to grab headlines outside of central New Jersey.
But, as Rider seems to be proving this season, it might win games, especially in a league as balanced as the MAAC. Rider fielded a starting lineup of Taylor, Xavier Lundy, Kahlil Thomas (all seniors), Norville Carey (a graduate transfer from Southern Miss.), and Jordan (freshman). The largely veteran five has been the only lineup Kevin Baggett has employed this season, and with all five averaging in double figures (all between 10-13 points), it will probably be the only lineup Rider starts this season (barring injury or illness, of course).
— Marist Athletics (@MaristAthletics) January 7, 2017
“I thought defensively we battled,” Marist coach Mike Maker said. “We just weren’t sharp enough offensively. A 1-to-2 assist to turnover ratio is not going to cut it the way we play. We’re a young team continuing to grow and learn from our mistakes, and Rider makes you pay for that.”
The Broncs (10-5, 3-1) were picked just seventh in the preseason MAAC poll, but already have a win at Monmouth and seem to be improving as the season progresses, led by a defense that is just behind Saint Peter’s (95 to 97th in efficiency) as the best in the conference. In league play, they are far and away the best (0.952 points per possession), which is a good thing because its offense is just 10th (0.974 ppp). Friday was their seventh road win of the season.
“That MAAC Tournament is not at Rider,” Rider coach Kevin Baggett said. “So we’re going to have to go up to Albany and take our chances, but understanding that we can win on the road.”
— Rider Athletics (@RIDERATHLETICS) January 7, 2017
So it might not be Monmouth or Iona with three-pointers flying and scores nearly triple digits, but Rider has a lot of the tools necessary to contend: an experienced group that has a big man (Thomas) and will make teams work to score against them.
What else did we learn in Poughkeepsie on Friday night?:
- Rider’s advanced stats are a little strange
Like some other MAAC teams (looking at you, Fairfield), after a disappointing season with a stuttering offense, Baggett decided his team needed to run more. And they have. The Broncs have gone from a plodding 329th in adjust tempo last season (when they finished 13-20) all the way to 36th this season.
The odd part is that most benefiting from the change is the .. defense?
After posting 1.06 ppp Friday, Rider is up to 270th in offensive efficiency, only eight spots better than last season. But, as was mentioned before, the defense is 97th (after being 176th last season).
Rider is 67th in defensive eFG% (46.6%, with Marist almost exactly on that number Friday). Much of that number comes on 3-point defense (30.0%, 26th), which is a little worrying, but one significant change is their aggression leading teams to shoot less threes against them than in the past, where they played mostly a more passive zone.
“That’s the way I’ve been wanting to play since I got here,” Baggett said. “Stevie’s really been a big help to that. He’s done a good job all year long of getting us the ball and getting us up and down the court. We don’t want to grind it in the half-court. We had to tonight, but that’s not fun. I think our guys enjoy getting up and down more.”
The Broncs are still a poor outside shooting team at the other end (332nd at 28.7% after being being 305th at 31.5% last season), but they are also taking less outside shots in the more up-tempo system.
Will it last through 16 more league games? We’ll have to find out together.
2) Marist will be feisty at home
The Red Foxes played largely without Ryan Funk (illness), and got big minutes off the bench from Obi Momah (8 pts., 7 rebs.), but were eventually doomed by a tough night from Khallid Hart (10 pts., 3-12 FG), although surely the Rider defense, led by Taylor, had plenty to do with that (Hart did not score in the aforementioned final 8:30).
“They always tell me to guard the other team’s best guy,” Taylor said. “They’re going to make shots, but I try to make sure they’re all contested. He’s a better player than that, usually, but I just wanted to make sure all the shots were contested.”
It does seem, though, that Marist (5-11, 2-3) is just a little bit short of being really competitive consistently in the MAAC. Their defense, like their team, is slightly improved (341st to 328th in efficiency), but they just don’t force enough turnovers (318th, 16.0%) or get enough defensive rebounds (65.9%, 311th) to make the next step right now.
Hart is only averaging 16.2 points per game and that should improve and Marist will win some more games this season, though.
“We need to grow and learn from today’s game,” Maker said. “That’s a veteran team we played. They have three seniors and a graduate transfer playing the majority of the minutes. Thomas and Lundy are a tough guard on the interior. We need to do better executing offensively, and we need to do that at Marist to be effective in this league.”
3) Stevie Jordan among the MAAC’s top rookies
Like his team, his shooting could use some improvement (29.0% from three), but Jordan has certainly been a huge factor in Rider’s success from the point guard spot, leading Rider in assists (5.7 per game, 41st nationally in assist rate). His turnover rate is also a bit high (25.1%), but he has been one of the biggest reasons the Broncs are on top of the MAAC standings at this early stage.
“He has no fear in his heart, which is what makes him so good,” Taylor said.