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The Trentonian's Full-Court Press blog is back and improved. We'll keep you updated on everything you need to know about Rider and Princeton hoops as well as the college basketball landscape.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Watch out for those raccoons




I'll have more on this in Friday's paper, but since I've gotten a flurry of questions about it via everything from e-mail to Twitter messages, here's the scoop on Rider's fancy new practice facility at the Mercer County Airport.

After a flood in late August did some severe damage to the floor at Alumni Gym, Rider officials called around to look for short-term alternatives. The alternative they ended up finding was in an abandoned tennis facility at the airport, where you have to dodge deer on the way in and where a family of raccoons appears from time to time in one of the corners (though to be fair, it's far enough away from the court that the furry ones are unlikely to interfere with scrimmages).

I went to watch the Broncs work out yesterday and had an interesting time finding the place. I drove to the airport, which is easy enough to find, and saw a sign pointing me in one of two directions: forward toward the terminal or to the left toward the tennis facility.

I took the left, dodged a deer that ran across the road, and found my way to the small parking lot in the back.

I entered the door, walked past a yellowish green couch that someone likely put there in the Carter administration, then walked over to the court.

I was in the middle of watching workouts, complimenting players and coaches on the new digs, when assistant coach Todd Shellenberger chuckled and said "you should see the raccoons," which he later showed me. There's a family of four that appears from time to time in the corner, there are the deer outside, and there is, of course, the occasional plane flying over.

Luckily, though, the place isn't exactly JFK International, so the planes only come over once a day or so. And as Tommy Dempsey pointed out, they're smaller planes that don't make a ton of noise, so they're not as distracting as say, a 747.

Kevin Bannon, the former Rider and Rutgers coach who now runs the Mercer County parks commission and coaches the Notre Dame High boys team, helped set the Broncs up with the floor from Sovereign Bank Arena, along with a pair of hoops from the parks commission.

Initially, the Broncs thought they'd be back at the Zoo by the time formal practices start Oct. 15. But then they got word the floor had to be completely replaced rather than simply repaired, pushing the timetable back closer to Nov. 1.

If all goes according to plan, the new floor will be ready with about a week to spare before Rider's Nov. 7 exhibition game against West Chester. Tommy Dempsey told me today that he isn't worried about the possibility of the game being pushed moved or postponed.

Dempsey said he also isn't worried about any negative impact on recruiting, and I think he's probably right. If a recruit, for instance, had never been on campus and the airport facility was the first image he associated with the program, the Broncs might be in trouble.

But with the fall signing period approaching, they'd be in even BIGGER trouble if they were trying to close a deal with a kid they hadn't yet brought on campus.

It looks like this will be Rider's home for all of October, meaning the next two weeks of informal workouts and the first two weeks of formal practices. The Broncs were forced to postpone their annual "Midnight MAACness" festivities, which Dempsey told me will be replaced by some kind of rally closer to the start of the regular season.

That, though, should be the only real casualty of this flood and these circumstances.

I'll have something up tomorrow and in the paper with quotes. Until then, talk away about the Broncs' temporary home and anything else that's on your minds.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

One-on-one with Tommy Dempsey

The leaves are starting to turn, the weather is starting to cool down, and finally, Midnight Madness will be here in a matter of weeks, not months.

With that in mind, I stopped by Alumni Gym recently for a chat with Tommy Dempsey.

For what I think is good reason, he's as excited about this season as he's been in my three years covering the team. And for MAAC fans, here's the best part: I think this is clearly the best team Dempsey has had -- it's a lot better than the Jason-Thompson-led 07-08 team because that team had two freshmen starters and this team has none -- and no one is saying its the best team in the league.

The Broncs have a bona fide NBA prospect with three other returning starters -- in addition to a proven newcomer in Monmouth transfer Jhamar Youngblood -- surrounding him, but will be picked either second or third in the preseason coaches' poll.

The most interesting answer Dempsey gave me may have been the last one, in which he said that finishing second in the MAAC this year will be unacceptable.

I can see the comments piling up now from a few Rider-hating Siena fans, but I think there'd be something wrong if Dempsey didn't have these kind of expectations. If you're a mid-major team with an NBA prospect and you don't think you're good enough to play in the NCAA tournament, you've got something seriously wrong with your program.

Here, then, is the full transcript of our Q&A.

Let the comments flow!

Blog: Excited to get going?

Dempsey: You still feel a little bit awkward about the way the season ended, with the way we lost to Niagara. So as a coach, as a program, as a team, when you lose a game in that fashion, basically at the buzzer, it stings for all spring. You don’t get over those things quickly. Everywhere you go you have to talk about it.

(Sorry Rider fans, but since this has been the talk of the offseason, and since it's at least possible some readers might not have seen it or be aware of it, I am contractually obligated to include this video).




That’s not saying that it’s the main reason I’m looking forward to the season, but at the same time we’re looking to get past that tough loss and back into playing. We like our team. You always get more excited about your season when you like your team.

I thought last year’s team wasn’t quite ready to be really good, but we held our own, we did a good job of not taking a major step backward when most people probably thought we would. When you’re at a place like Rider and you lose an NBA lottery pick I think there’s certainly a period of adjustment that comes right after it, and there was for us. It certainly wasn’t an easy year. I think you would consider, I considered it successful when I had a chance to get myself removed from it and look back on it.

You never feel like you’re having as good a year as you think you could have had during the year. But when I looked back on it, going through what we went through, and then watching Jason put up those numbers in the NBA, you start to realize how good he was, and you always take those things for granted when you have him. So I thought the guys did a good job of keeping the program at a level where we were still one of the elite teams in the league and we bring the core of that group back again, so I think we’re in a good position.

That gets your juices flowing if you get ready for the start of the season. Our maturity level has really grown through eight freshmen and sophomores who were really in the mix last year and getting past that, we finally have an older group. Even Jason’s senior year, Mike’s a freshman, Justin’s a freshman, Ryan’s a sophomore, so a lot of the core of your team was still young even then. Now the core of our team is juniors and seniors, with some sophomores mixed in.


Blog: What kind of conversations did you have with Ryan Thompson about entering the NBA draft last spring?

Dempsey: We approached it the same way we approached it with Jason. This is the greatest time of your life. You’re a senior in college, you’re a star, you’re on a good team. You’re very close to the people in the locker room, you’re very close to the coaching staff, you’re a little bit of a local celebrity, so enjoy it.

Focus on what your last year is like as a kid in a lot of ways because it’s going to become a business very quickly, and just focus on helping us win. Because the one thing about the Thompsons is that they’re very into winning. They’re very into being a good teammate and those types of things.

As a head coach they don’t put you in a tough spot because they don’t put themselves first, although everyone else will. Everyone you talk to will want to talk about Ryan or how he played or how he did, and who’s looking at him, or how many scouts were there, so it’s like everything revolves around Ryan in so many ways like it did about Jason. They didn’t get caught up in that.

Did we talk about it? Of course. It’s the elephant in the room. It’s there. Everyone wants to know about it. Everyone’s going to ask him about it, everyone’s going to ask his teammates about it, so I try to be open with Ryan.

I try to be open with the whole team, but they have to take advantage of the fact that everyone on our team gets to play in front of eight or 10 or 12 NBA scouts and it’s not that they’re all NBA players, but they all dream about being NBA players. One of the things that you struggle with is exposure, and getting in front of those type of people. So I try to capitalize on the fact that yes, they’re coming to watch Ryan, but there’s opportunities in it for everyone.

Blog: But coming back was a no-brianer?

Dempsey: Yeah, because as much as anything it was another year to develop as a point guard. He only played point guard for half the season last year, and a couple of NBA scouts have talked to me about, one of the things that’s tough in their business is trying to project. They’re trying to evaluate college players and a lot of times they’re hoping they can play the point in the NBA when they didn’t play the point in college. Now this gives them another entire season to watch him play the point.

You can evaluate him as a point guard and not just wonder if he can play the position. Like Jason, the No. 1 reason he’s back here is to get his degree. Jason was focused on graduating and Ryan is the same way. Their family really believes in that. No matter what’s going on with Jason right now, he’s proud that he’s part of the minority in the NBA that has a diploma. He’s impressed that upon Ryan: finish your career, get your degree, have fun, and see what happens.

Blog: Anything you learned taking Jason through the process that will make you do things differently this time around?

Dempsey: I don’t know if there’s anything I’d do differently, but I do feel that having been through it before, mentally, it helps me know what to expect, what they’re looking for, how to handle the distractions that come with trying to run a practice and having six scouts there when all of your guys are trying to be Michael Jordan. In your games, everyone thinks they’re on display. Having been through that process and knowing a lot of those guys, the scouts, some of the GMs and some of the people I dealt with in the process with Jason, I’m a little more familiar with the personnel. And the other thing is I have a better sense of what they’re looking for as I try to help him on a daily basis to get him ready for the next level.

Blog: Justin Robinson spent the summer with the British national team.

Dempsey: He played against some of the best players in the world. I think he’s also in the summer, which is a little bit of downtime for a lot of college basketball players, he was competing at a high level against grown men. I’m going to shut him down for a couple of weeks. I don’t want him to burn out on me in January or February because he’s been playing at a very high level since August. He’s played in some big-time spots and some big-time games. No matter how hard you work out or how hard you work, there’s nothing like playing against high-level competition. I think it will give him confidence.

I don’t know how much people realize how well he was playing at the end of last year. His numbers after his first 10 games, I believe in February he was one of the better guards in the league night in and night out. At one point we won 11 out of 14 and I thought he was a big reason why. I thought Ryan moving to the point and Justin moving to the two made us a better team. They were more comfortable. They became one of the league’s best backcourt in the second half of the year, and that’s when we became one of the league’s best teams. He was hard to get. We recruited primarily against Atlantic 10 schools to get him, and there’s a reason for that. He’s starting to get settled into his career here.

Blog: At what point did you feel he was over the knee injury and really clicking?

Dempsey: By the time we got to January it wasn’t that he was limited, but he hadn’t really played, so he was struggling with his confidence. I can’t remember an exact game, but then he just had a couple of good games in a row, he started to make big shots and he started to get more comfortable playing off the ball. In mid to late January he started to look really comfortable out there, and I really thought in February he started to look like one of the better guards in the league.

Blog: Is this the first time you’ve had a team that you’d feel comfortable taking to games at Kentucky and Mississippi State?

Dempsey: I don’t know how comfortable I feel about going to Mississippi State and Kentucky, but if I didn’t think this group could handle it we wouldn’t go. They need to be pushed, they need to be challenged.

This is a group that they think they’re pretty good. Sometimes it really helps us and sometimes I think it hurts us a little bit. It’s a confident group. It’s close to an arrogant group and I think that by playing this schedule it will not only challenge them but expose us in a lot of ways. I’m hoping to learn a lot in these games.

I’m hoping to have a lot of teachable moments as a result of those games and to get guys re-focused once that stretch is over on the things that we need to do to become an NCAA tournament team. That’s it for us this year. If we finish second, no one is going to be happy. We’ve been there. We’ve finished second, we’ve finished third, we’ve had the injuries in the tournament, we’ve watched the bank shot go in, because there’s a growing process that comes with becoming a championship team.

There’s a learning process, there’s some tough losses along the way. Now there are no excuses. In our locker room, we talk about finishing first. That’s it. It’s not an excuse that Siena’s a top 20 team in the country. If they’re a top 20 team, we have to somehow find a way to be better than them. I’m not saying we’re at that level. Trust me, I’m, not saying that. But finishing second will be very disappointing to everyone in our program.