Jersey teams have something to prove in 09
The Rider men went to the MAAC title game, reached postseason play for the first time in 12 years, and produced an NBA lottery pick.
The Rutgers women went to the Elite Eight and may have advanced further if they hadn’t been unlucky enough to run into nemesis UConn in the regional title game.
The Rutgers men had little success on the court but plenty on the recruiting trail, leading to the most heralded freshman class in school history.
But so far this season, there hasn’t been much to celebrate.
The Rutgers men, who entered the season dreaming of a 12-0 start, stumbled through the non-conference portion of their schedule with losses to Lehigh, Saint Bonaventure and Binghamton.
The Rutgers women fared even worse in relation to their expectations, coming up empty in a two-game trip to California and dropping from second to 11th in the national polls.
The Rider men were picked third in the preseason MAAC coaches poll — a spot ahead of where they were picked last year — but are 6-5 heading into the new year with losses in three of their previous four games and no quality wins of which to speak.
The Princeton men, coming off their worst season in decades, haven’t improved enough to be considered relevant in the eyes of many.
The Rider women aren’t completely without hope, but they still have just two wins.
The Princeton women haven’t been much better.
As we enter 2009 — and as the Rider men play at Iona today in the first game of the year featuring a local team — each team needs success in the 2009 portion of its schedule to avoid an unsuccessful season.
The team with the most to gain is the Rutgers women’s team.
Not only have the Scarlet Knights suffered two ugly losses, they’ve also had plenty of ugly wins, too. They got all they could handle from Temple and haven’t blown teams away the way national title contenders should.
Saturday’s game at the RAC against Tennessee will be a good measuring stick.
With a team dominated by youth, coach C. Vivian Stringer has to hope the Knights’ freshmen and sophomores show enough improvement over the course of the Big East schedule for the team to contend in the NCAA tournament, in which they could play in the regional semifinals and finals at Sovereign Bank Arena.
The Rutgers men also have plenty to prove. Coach Fred Hill has gotten plenty of praise for bringing Mike Rosario and Gregory Echenique to Piscataway, but he’ll get plenty of criticism if the team doesn’t show at least some measurable improvement on the court.
The Rider men are in need of a turnaround. Coach Tommy Dempsey was excited this fall about the possibilities for a team with four returning starters including Ryan Thompson, a preseason first-team all-MAAC selection. The talent may be there, but the Broncs have had more trouble than many expected dealing with injuries to Harris Mansell, Justin Robinson and Jermaine Jackson.
They’re 1-0 in the MAAC, so a turnaround could still put them toward the top of the MAAC standings and give them an outside shot postseason play.
The Princeton men lost their last six games in 2008 and are 2-8 heading into Saturday’s game against UNC-Greensboro. But the Tigers aren’t completely without hope for the following reasons:
• Freshman Doug Davis, a former standout at the Hun School, has clearly been their best player so far, averaging a team-best 13.6 points per game. He’s more likely to improve over the next three months than many upperclassmen, and could emerge as a game-changer during the Ivy League season.
• The Ivy League is as weak this year as it’s been in recent memory. The league is 28th out of 32 conferences in RPI, and 7-6 Cornell is the league’s only team with a winning record.
• The Tigers’ league schedule doesn’t begin until Jan. 30 at Dartmouth, leaving them three more non-conference tuneups before the games mean anything.
The Princeton women face a nearly identical situation.
They enter the new year 4-8, having lost four straight, but the Ivy League is no tougher on the women’s side than it is on the men’s side. Harvard, at 7-6, is the only team with a winning record. No other team has more than five wins.
The Rider women face a tough road ahead. Losers of seven straight after a 2-1 start, the Broncs open the 2009 portion of their schedule Sunday against defending MAAC champion Marist.
There are achievable goals, though, such as surpassing last year’s overall win total of eight and MAAC win total of three, and making it past the opening day of the MAAC tournament.
An NCAA women’s tournament regional semifinal will take place on March 29 in Trenton, with the regional final to follow two days later. That ensures that the area will be treated to meaningful, competitive, entertaining basketball.
Will any of the local teams produce the same?
That remains to be seen, but here’s hoping at least a few of them do.