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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.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Rider 88, Fairfield 80

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – This was the Ryan Thompson who many had considered an NBA prospect – a dominant player capable of taking over a game at any time.

Thompson, in a perplexing slump for most of the season, has been his old self the last two games, never more than in the second half yesterday.

The preseason MAAC Player of the Year took it to Fairfield, driving to the hoop with reckless abandon and carrying Rider to an 88-80 win before 3,413 at the Arena at Harbor Yard.

Thompson, assertive in the open floor and unflappable at the free-throw line, scored a career-high 31 points, including 23 in the second half. He hit 7 of 15 from the floor and 15 of 16 from the line. As if that wasn’t enough, he also added 11 rebounds and four steals.

That, combined with 15 points from Justin Robinson and 14 from Novar Gadson, was enough to lift the Broncs (13-11 overall, 6-6 MAAC) to their third straight win.

This was a different Rider team overall – one much more like the one many expected to see this season than the one that struggled badly in December and January.

The Broncs came in having faced double-digit deficits in nine of their 11 MAAC games. Yesterday, they trailed by no more than three, led by as many as 16, and would likely have won going away had it not been for an astounding performance by Fairfield’s Mike Evanovich.

Evanovich, connecting from far beyond the arc, hit his first eight 3-point attempts before missing his final three. He set a school record for 3s made and finished with a career-high 24 points.

Yet Rider was in control almost throughout.

The Stags (15-7, 8-4) cut a 16-point second-half deficit to four in the second half, when it appeared a mental lapse by Gadson could prove costly.

Rider led 78-68 when Gadson passed at a wide-open layup and tried to throw an alley-oop to Mike Ringgold. Fairfield’s Colin Nickerson intercepted the pass and found Derek Needham for a layup, cutting the deficit to eight.

Two Rider turnovers and two Fairfield baskets later it was 78-74 with 2:18 left, what had been a quiet crowd coming to life.

But the Broncs gathered themselves, scored 10 points at the line in the final two minutes, and finished off their most impressive conference win of the season.

Live from Harbor Yard: Rider at Fairfield

Tom Cleary on Fairfield

For some more insight on the Stags, I turned to Tom Cleary, who holds to jobs I used to have: Men's basketball beat writer and Editor in Chief at The Mirror, Fairfield's student newspaper.

My answers to Tom's questions are on The Mirror sports blog.

1. Please tell me you're petitioning the NCAA for an extra year of eligibility at The Mirror. If you graduate, I will no longer have any more connections there.

It's unbelievable that we are almost graduating. I think we all would love to stay another year and are a bit worried about the future of Mirror Sports. It's also scary that after our class there will be no connections to your class, it seems like just yesterday Dan Akeson was sports editor and you were running the show. But overall these four years covering Fairfield sports have been amazing for all three of us (Keith Connors, Chris Simmons and myself). Keith and I started covering Fairfield basketball in Cooley's first season and we have watched Fairfield basketball develop over four years. While we will definitely continue to follow Stags basketball, we will always miss the chance to go to Stags games and sit on the court and have the opportunity to cover the game.

2. Surprised by the Stags' success this year?

I'm somewhat surprised, only because of the injuries to Warren Edney and Greg Nero. After last season, with all the injuries and the problems with Jon Han, it was unclear whether the Stags would continue developing well or if they would regress. As it turns out they have advanced by leaps and bounds. Derek Needham has been a huge part of that, because he has given Cooley a point guard that can push the ball and make plays with athletic players around him like Anthony Johnson and Yorel Hawkins. I wasn't sure what to expect entering the year, but from early on, really as soon as Hawkins came back from his bout with appendicitis and as we saw what Needham could do, I felt that the Stags were going to have a special year. Even if the schedule has been lighter than in the past, the Stags have won the games they are supposed to. Now they just have to win the games they aren't, which they have not yet.

3. Ed Cooley told me Derek Needham is humble but extremely confident. How is he in interviews and press conferences?

Derek Needham has been unlike any other freshmen I've seen at Fairfield in my four years and unlike many freshmen around the country. He is cocky and confident enough to be a great point guard, but is also collected, calm and wise beyond his years. I've only seen him get down once, after a tough performance against a great team in Siena. Usually he remains upbeat, confident that he and the team will bounce back. He also has a quiet confidence about him that is much different from what we saw in Han, who was outwardly cocky. Needham knows he can play with anyone and has confidence that his team can do the same. He handles himself well in press conferences. He's been through a lot in his life and has earned a lot of respect from both his coaches and teammates. I think he is going to go down as one of the greatest in Fairfield history, both in the record books and in the memories of Stags fans, who will love him even more the more they get to know him.

4. Who is Fairfield's most improved player?

Yorel Hawkins. He had his fair share of good games last season, but the problem with him was his choice of shots. This year he has been far more selective with his shooting and is making shots when it matters. He has reached the point where he can take over a game. At the same time he has improved greatly defensively and runs the floor very well, providing a weapon for Needham on the break. Hawkins is shooting 49 percent from the field (10th best in the league), after shooting 40 percent last season. Needham deservedly gets most of the attention, along with Anthony Johnson, but without Yorel Hawkins the Stags would be in a lot of trouble.

But consideration has to go to Anthony Johnson, who put on a lot of muscle this off season and is a real force inside. He can dominate a game also and makes a lot more of his shots inside (50 percent this season) and is also improving from the free throw line. However, we all knew that if he was healthy he would be a top player again.

5. Gun to your head, how many MAAC wins will Fairfield finish with?

13 wins. The Stags will lose two of the last seven this season, probably one to Rider and one to Siena. The Stags won't lose to Iona at home and I think they can pull out a close game against Niagara on the road. Fairfield struggles on the trip down to Rider and I think that will continue this season. 13 wins probably gets the Stags third place, but the way the MAAC has gone this season, it could be good enough for second place.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Ed Cooley on Fairfield



Ed Cooley gave me 15 good minutes earlier today on the MAAC, his team and the state of the Fairfield program heading into tomorrow's game against Rider.


Q: Heck of a night last night in the MAAC.

A: The league, looking at all the scores of the games, you have to knuckle up every night. I truly believe this is the best our league has been since I’ve been here. You credit the coaches who have come into the league and done a decent job with recruiting and coming up with game plans, the talent that they’ve brought in and the styles of play. It’s been tough. It’s been really really tough.

Q: Given everything your team has gone through, you have to be thrilled with the 8-3 start.

A: We’ve been blessed that our kids who did have an opportunity to play last year because of the injuries. Lydon Jordan, Ryan Olander, Sean Crawford, Jamal Turner, all those young men are playing big roles for us. Yorel Hawkins has been able to really step up. Really the biggest surprise is, we thought he’d have a big junior year, but now he’s having a Player of the Year type season, is Anthony Johnson. He’s playing unbelievable right now.

Q: Johnson's an amazing story.

A: Beyond anything else, I know there’s a lot of stories in our league about people overcoming adversity. This young kid is such a success story that I don’t even know if he knows it. Coming from Florida, you know his whole story, to graduating in a couple months, to being one of the most successful stories in college basketball today. The year he’s having is rewarding for me to see what he’s doing not just on the floor, I’m really proud of Anthony.

We told Anthony come here and be special. Come help Fairfield get on the map. Try to get to a place we haven’t gotten to in many many years. I thought last night (at Loyola) he willed us to win. He really led us down the stretch with his energy and his determination. It was special.

Q: Seems like after a rocky year last year when you had to throw a player off the team, that this year's team has much better chemistry.

A: For those who know me, I’m more of a character-based guy. When you take over a program you’re not going to have the personality that fits your personality because you didn’t recruit them and they don’t understand who you are as a person in the recruiting process. They need to know who you are as a coach and who you are as a person, and now all the players we have have gone through that recruiting process with me. We feel there’s a big difference in the commitment to wanting to become a better program, to getting better individually and to collectively buying into that philosophy, and that’s been huge.

Q:Derek Needham?

A: To do what he’s doing in our league, to control the games the way he’s been controlling them as a freshman is, since I’ve been in the league I don’t know if we’ve had an impact guy like that, and the league has had some wonderful, great players since I’ve been here. Because of his ability to lead. You’d love him if you sat and talked with him. He’s very humble. He’s a dream come true for a coach.

Q: Is he the kind of player who can take your program to the next level, from a team that wins 9, 10, 11 MAAC games to a team that wins 12, 13 or 14?

A: I guess you don’t put a number on it. You try to privately tell yourself the number that you think will win the league, but let’s go back a little bit to the process, to the process and the history of Fairfield basketball. The situation we walked into wasn’t very promising. Let’s be honest. The process takes time. At our press conference, we said hey, within three to five years we should be in the top half of the league, and quite frankly since we’ve been here we’ve been in the top half of the league. But it’s a process, it takes time. Derek Needham is the type of player who can help you turn a program around. People are going to want to play with him. He’s that type of player. He’s that special.

Q: How about having your predecessor, Tim O'Toole, serving as a color analyst on local TV broadcasts?

A: I think it’s great. It’s a testament to Gene Doris and also to Tim. He’s understanding that this is business, but he’s an alum of the school, he’s a former coach. He has a passion for this university. I think it’s been a really really good thing, and it shows, it should show everyone that this is a business, that’s one thing, but if you love something and you have a passion for it, you continue to do what you have to do and I’m really proud of Tim as well as Gene for allowing those opportunities to present themselves.

Q: Have you talked a lot to Tim?

A: Yeah. As an alum he’s very proud. I think he sees it’s headed in the right direction. He had some shortcomings, but I don’t think there’s any ill will. I appreciated him leaving me with the players he left me with like MVS and Greg Nero to name a few. You’re hired in this business, you realize it’s not going to last a lifetime. Bobby Bowden just got fired at Florida State for crying out loud.

I hope I can have some of the successes he’s had in the league. I defeinitely think we’re trying to build something here.

Rider-Fairfield

LUCAS THE STAG

Breaking down tomorrow's matchup in my annual homecoming game:

SCOUTING RIDER: Ryan Thompson’s 25 points led the Broncs to a 74-71 win Thursday over Manhattan, Rider’s second straight win after losing seven of nine. Thompson, averaging a disappointing 14.9 points, had one of his best games of the season Thursday. … Justin Robinson (12.9 points) leads the MAAC in 3-point shooting (44 percent) and free-throw shooting (92 percent). He put both skills to good use Thursday, when he sunk a 3 with 35 seconds left to give Rider a two-point lead, then hit two free throws with 9.5 seconds left to stretch the lead from one to three. … Mike Ringgold (11 points, 7.1 rebounds) is one of the MAAC’s best defenders, as evident in his performance Thursday, when he held Manhattan’s Rico Pickett to four second-half points. … Novar Gadson (11.1, 7.9) has scored in double figures only once in his last six games while playing through an ankle sprain. … Jhamar Youngblood (7.8 points) is one of several players Tommy Dempsey has used as a fifth starter, though Jermaine Jackson (1.2 points), Brandon Penn (3.8) and Jon Thompson (2.7) are also options.

SCOUTING FAIRFIELD: The Stags are led by freshman point guard Derek Needham, a shoo-in for MAAC Rookie of the Year who’s averaging 15.2 points and 5.8 assists. He’s second in the MAAC in assists and assist/turnover ratio, trailing only Player of the Year candidate Ronald Moore of Siena in both categories. … Senior forward Anthony Johnson is having the best year of what’s been an injury-plagued career. Johnson (14.8 points, 9 rebounds) missed time last year with a life-threatening blood clot in his lungs, only to return this year in top form. He’s been especially dominant of late, having scored 25 points in a loss Sunday at Iona and 23 in Thursday’s win at Loyola … Sophomore forward Yorel Hawkins (14.7 points, 5.4 rebounds) has been Fairfield’s most improved player. His four-point showing Thursday ended a stretch of five straight games in double figures. … Sophomore center Ryan Olander, one of the MAAC’s biggest players at 6-feet-11, is averaging 6.7 points and 4.5 rebounds. … Senior forward Mike Evanovich, soft on defense despite being 6-8, is averaging 6.4 points and shooting 43 percent from 3. … Junior guard Lyndon Jordan (6.2 points) is out with a sprained ankle.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Rider 74, Manhattan 71

Full story in a couple hours on trentonian.com.

LAWRENCEVILLE – Alumni Gym was rocking – perhaps not like it has in years past, but in a way it hasn’t in some time.

The crowd, energized by Rider’s second-half comeback, came to life late and erupted when Justin Robinson’s 3 gave Rider a dramatic win it badly needed.

Robinson’s 3 put the Broncs ahead with 35 seconds left, and after Rico Pickett’s 3 at the buzzer rimmed out, Rider sealed a 74-71 victory, the Broncs’ second in a row after a three-game losing streak.

“We never give up,” Ryan Thompson said. “We’re all in this together. We’ve been down in situations like this before, but we know we always have the opportunity to come back. We showed it today.”

Thompson played his best game in weeks, scoring a team-high 25 points. But it was Robinson, Rider’s most consistent performer all year, who delivered in the final minute.

His 3 from the top of the key gave Rider a 72-70 lead. And with the game on the line with 9.5 seconds left, the MAAC’s leading free-throw shooter hit two at the line, stretching the margin to 74-71.

Pickett, on his way to a historic night early, scored 28 points in the first half but only four in the second. He forced up a 3 at the buzzer that was on target but rattled out, sending the Broncs to a season sweep of the Jaspers.

Thompson was assertive and Robinson clutch. Yet the most important Rider performance may have come from Mike Ringgold, who shut down Pickett in the second half.

Pickett, an Alabama transfer who came into the game leading the MAAC in scoring, put on a show early. At the break, he had only two fewer points than Rider did as a team.

He managed only four points after the break, only two after the opening minute of the half.

“I need a guy who’s going to take it personally,” Dempsey said. “That’s the bottom line. You need someone who’s going to play with a chip on his shoulder. It has to be really important to you. It’s really important to Mike, and he took it personally that the kid had 28 at the half.”

Live from the Zoo: Manhattan at Rider

Press MAAC Index, Week 4: The up-and-coming edition

RYAN BACON

While it may still be true that the biggest surprises in the MAAC have been negative -- Niagara and Rider entering tonight's games tied for sixth, with neither team even in contention for the regular season title -- I've become more and more intrigued by the league's more pleasant surprises.

Entering tonight's games, Iona, Saint Peter's and Fairfield are tied for second in the league at 7-3. And while it's a virtual lock that Siena will win the regular season, title, I now think it's more interesting to have the current crop of teams in contention than the crop we all expected to have in October.

The reason? All three teams are composed almost exclusively of underclassmen, meaning all three will be loaded next year, and quite possibly be picked first through third in next year's preseason rankings.

Iona and Saint Peter's both return their top four starters, and while Fairfield will sorely miss Anthony Johnson, the Stags will get Warren Edney and possibly Greg Nero back from season-long injuries.

Which of the three teams will make the biggest run down the stretch -- and how they position themselves in the PMI and for tournament seeding -- should be one of the top storylines of February.

This week's rankings:

1. Siena: Records: 17-4 overall, 10-0 MAAC; RPI: 38; Position: Stayed the same

The race for the regular season title essentially over, it's time to move on to some other storylines. One of them is the ever-tantalizing at-large-bid story.

Without a marquee non-conference win and without much competition at the top of the MAAC, Siena would have a lot of work to do in order to get into the bubble discussion. But if the Saints run the table in the MAAC and win at Butler in their BracketBuster game, they'll be in the mix.

Of course, by Monday night in Albany, that's unlikely to matter anyway.

2. Iona: Records: 15-6, 7-3: RPI: 73; Position: Moved up one spot

Are the Gaels on fire or what? After an impressive win over Fairfield last Sunday, they've won six straight and 11 out of 13, making them the hottest team in the league this side of Siena, and quite possibly the best.

Based on the obstacles his team has had to overcome, I chose Ed Cooley as my MAAC Coach of the First Half. But if Iona finishes in the top three after being picked eighth, Kevin Willard would be a very, very strong candidate for Coach of the Year.

3. Saint Peter's: Records: 12-8, 7-3; RPI: 142: Position: Moved up one spot

I was surprised by the Peacocks' early-season ineptitude, but to their credit, they've managed to completely turn things around since a non-conference slate that included a loss to Wagner and a 46-point performance at Rutgers.

They're on such a roll heading into tonight's game against Saint Peter's that they've even generated some press. My pal Brendan Prunty of the Star-Ledger, a college hoops writer who focuses on Seton Hall, Rutgers, and occasionally Rider, stopped by to write this piece on the Peacocks.

4. Fairfield: Records: 14-6, 7-3; RPI: 115; Position: Moved down two spots

I dropped the Stags two spots more because of how well Iona and Saint Peter's have played than because of anything Fairfield did wrong. At 7-3, they're still in good shape and far exceeding expectations, but they've been less impressive over the last two weeks than the Gaels and Peacocks, and need a win tonight at Loyola to avoid falling into a mid-season funk.

5. Canisius: Records: 10-11, 5-5; RPI: 189; Position: Moved up one spot

The Golden Griffs continue to be the epitome of an up-and-down team. One day, they beat Rider's brains in in the second half, while the next they lay an egg at home against Saint Peter's. But hey, if you're a Canisius fan, you've got to be fired up for Friday's game against Niagara, which offers a chance for the Griffs to make a statement about their Buffalo supremacy.

6. Niagara: Records: 11-11, 4-6; RPI: 174; Position: Moved down one spot

Even without Tyrone Lewis, I thought the Eagles would have enough to hold off Rider Sunday at home. And while credit is due to Rider for overcoming a double-digit deficit, the Eagles clearly didn't have the ingredients Canisius and Saint Peter's had to put the Broncs away. Lewis, though, is a weapon whose importance can't be overstated. If he's healthy down the stretch, I fully expect Niagara to be dangerous.

7. Rider: Records: 11-11, 4-6; RPI: 154; Position: Stayed the same

I'm very interested to see how the Broncs play tonight against Manhattan. With a win, they'd be 5-6 in the league and potentially able to gain back some of the confidence that has gone missing over the past month. A loss, though, would make Sunday's win look more like a fluke than the start of a turnaround.

8. Manhattan: Records: 7-13, 2-8; RPI: 220; Position: Stayed the same

It's telling that in MAAC games, the Jaspers are seventh in scoring margin despite being in ninth place. Their two wins have been blowouts, and almost all of their losses have been close, with four coming by three points or fewer. That's why I wouldn't be surprised at all by a win tonight at Rider, or even by the Jaspers reeling off several wins down the stretch.

9. Loyola: Records: 10-10, 3-7; RPI: 257; Position: Stayed the same

The Hounds had been staying afloat with Jamal Barney in the lineup, but have looked lost since the star guard left the team after the Iona game Jan. 11. There are enough pieces there to make Loyola capable of beating middle-of-the-pack teams, but it's hard to imagine them not being in the 8-9 game Friday night in Albany.

10. Marist: Records: 1-19, 1-9; RPI: 339; Position: Stayed the same

Look at the good news, Fox fans: Your team has moved under 340 in the RPI and had three players on my MAAC first-half all-Rookie team.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Rider-Manhattan

DARRYL CRAWFORD

Breaking down tomorrow's game between Jaspers and Broncs:


SCOUTING MANHATTAN:
The Jaspers, losers of five straight and eight of nine, are led by junior guard Rico Pickett, who leads the MAAC in scoring at 17.2 points per game. Pickett, an Alabama transfer, scored a game-high 25 points in the Jaspers’ Jan. 4 loss to Rider and has scored 20 or more in five of his last seven games. ... Senior swingman Darryl Crawford (14.7 points, team-high 6.1 rebounds) has struggled recently. After being held under 10 points only three times through the Jaspers’ first 17 games, he’s scored only nine points in two of their last three. He also struggled in Manhattan’s first game against Rider, in which he scored only eight points in 33 minutes. ... Senior guard Antoine Pearson (9.3 points) is shooting 35 percent from 3-point range. ... Senior forward Brandon Adams (6.8 points) had 15 points and eight rebounds during the Jaspers’ last win, a 76-53 rout of Saint Peter’s on Jan. 8. ... Senior guard Patrick Bouli (4.7 points) has scored five or fewer points in six straight games.

SCOUTING RIDER: The Broncs had lost three straight and seven of nine before rallying to beat Niagara 62-61 Sunday on Novar Gadson’s tip-in with five seconds left. They’ve played seven of 10 MAAC games on the road, but haven’t taken advantage of their home court advantage when they’ve had it. In their last two league home games, they’ve been outscored by 31 points by Iona (69-49 on Jan. 9) and Saint Peter’s (77-66). Overall, they’ve lost three straight at home for the first time since 2005-06. ... Ryan Thompson remains in a season-long funk. The presesaon MAAC Player of the Year is leading the team in scoring (14.5 points per game) but scored a combined 22 points in games at Canisius and Niagara. After shooting 42 percent from 3 last season, he’s shooting 30 percent this year. ... Justin Robinson (12.8 points) leads the MAAC in 3-point shooting at 44 percent. ... Gadson (11 points, 7.8 rebounds) had 11 points and 11 rebounds against Niagara. ... Mike Ringgold (11, 7.3) scored a team-high 18 at Niagara. ... Jhamar Youngblood (8 points) is shooting 23 percent from 3.
SIDELINES: During Manhattan’s five-game skid, only one game has been decided by eight or more points, while two have been decided by two points. ... Rider’s MAAC wins against teams other than Marist have come by a combined two points.

Games of the Week

ALEX FRANLIN

BILAL BENN

YOREL HAWKINS

As I wrote yesterday on Twitter, I've been MIA for the past three days because of a massive 40-page history of the Super Bowl section that I put together here at The Trentonian. If you're in Jersey Friday, pick it up. It'll be a good coffee-table book. Lots of goofy photos of guys like Len Dawson and Fran Tarkenton.

The good news is that, since there weren't any MAAC games over the last few days, the Games of the Week post is up the week of hoops gets underway tomorrow.

So better late than never, my top five MAAC games of the week:

5. Fairfield at Loyola, Thursday, 7 p.m.

Sure, the Stags' two recent losses were hardly unforgiveable, one coming at home to Siena and the other by 10 points at surging Iona. But a loss here would make it three out of five -- something that would make Fairfield look a lot more like a middle-of-the-pack team than a contender. And as usual, the Cooley vs. Patsos angle is hard to resist.

4. Manhattan at Saint Peter's, Sunday, 2 p.m., ESPNU

Here's to hoping the Peacocks get a nice, big, relatively loud crowd for Thursday's game against Siena (see below) and this one against the Jaspers, who blew SPC's doors off when the teams met in Riverdale. Saint Peter's is surging, having won five straight since that Jan. 8 loss at Draddy. The Jaspers look destined for the play-in round, but they've hardly been a pushover in recent weeks and are certainly capable of completing the season sweep.

3. Rider at Fairfield, Saturday, 4 p.m.

In my annual homecoming game, there should be plenty at stake for both teams. If Rider beats Manhattan tomorrow, the Broncs would be within reach of .500 of the league for the first time since their win over Marist put them at 3-3. The Stags will either be trying to snap a two-game losing streak or going for their ninth win, which would equal last year's season total with six games left on the schedule.

2. Niagara at Canisius, Friday, 7 p.m., ESPNU

Golden Griffins fans, tormented by Niagara's success and the Griffs' ineptitude over the last five years, have had this one circled on their calendars for months. The Griffs have been up and down this year, but that's a major upgrade over being consistently down, as they've been over the past few years.

The Purple Eagles haven't been this vulnerable in quite some time, but if Tyrone Lewis is healthy, they're still capable of beating anyone other than Siena on any given night.

1. Siena at Saint Peter's, Thursday, 7 p.m.

Three of Siena's last four games will be on the road, but with Niagara and Rider no longer the threats people thought they'd be, this one might be the most dangerous. The Peacocks are on a roll, the Saints are banged up, and you'd have to think if any game can generate some enthusiasm and a decent-sized crowd in Jersey City, it'd be this one.

If the Saints win, they'll be better than even money to run the table.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dempsey postgame quotes

Tommy Dempsey on Rider's 62-61 win over Niagara:

It was a real gutsy win for us. We're not in a good offensive rhythm as a team. Guys are struggling with their confidence, so we're stuggling to play good offense, and it would have been really easy for a team that's playing like we're playing to give in and lose another one. It almost took every ounce of courage and character to get out of here with a win. ... Hopefully this is a springboard for success later in the year. It would have been very difficult coming out of here at 3-7.

On overcoming an 11-point deficit:

I think it would have been easy to fold up and go away. The one thing I've preached and that the kids have been great with is, we really have not stopped being together. I haven't done a great job of coaching, we haven't done a great job of playing. I haven't been able to push the right buttons, and some of our better players are struggling. I think if we weren't together, once we faced adversity again, after having been down double digits so many games, if we had less character we would have been beaten by 15.

On the play that resulted in Novar Gadson's game-winning tip-in:

We set it with Pat (Mansell) because we tried to set it with a guy who can shoot. It makes a little harder to shoot. We set it with Pat, and I knew they wouldn't want to leave Pat, so you try to put your best rebounder on the opposite block. The play was for Ryan to score. As he went up, you circle in the rebounder behind him. It gives you two chances to win the games. ... Novar just made an instinctive play, a big-time play for the complexion of our reason.

Rider 62, Niagara 61

This was the kind of performance that has been missing all year — one in which Rider fell behind early but rebounded, coming away with a win that the Broncs hope is the beginning of a turnaround.

Novar Gadson’s tip-in with five seconds left lifted Rider to a 62-61 win yesterday at Niagara, giving the Broncs an unexpected lift that ended a three-game losing streak.

Rider (11-11 overall, 4-6 MAAC) won’t reach its lofty regular-season goals no matter how many wins it can pull off down the stretch.

But coach Tommy Dempsey talked Saturday about Rider needing to remember what it felt like to win. The Broncs, he said, needed some semblance of momentum to build toward the MAAC tournament and avoid an embarrassing final month of the regular season.

By beating the Purple Eagles — another team that has fallen far short of expectations — Rider finally found something to feel good about heading into Thursday’s game against Manhattan.

Down by 11 early in the second half, Rider staged a comeback, rallying to tie the game at 49 with 9:51 left in the game.

Niagara (11-11, 4-6), playing without injured guard Tyrone Lewis, built a 60-53 lead on an Austin Cooley layup with 6:09 left. But faced again with the kind of deficit they have been unable to overcome in the past, the Broncs made a run.

Rider cut the deficit to 61-60 on Gadson’s layup with 46 seconds left, then got a crucial stop on Niagara’s next possession, when Gadson rebounded Cooley’s missed 3 with 14 seconds left.

Needing a basket to take the lead, Rider turned to Thompson, who drove to the hoop and put up and off-balanced layup with six seconds left.

The layup bounced off the rim, but Gadson was there to tip it in with five seconds left.

Dempsey on Rider's struggles

Tommy Dempsey opened up yesterday about Rider's season, which has reached lows few thought possible in September.

Here's his take on what has gone wrong and how the Broncs are approaching the season going forward:

We're just trying to keep it together, hoping we'll start to put it together and say 'OK, I remember.' ... It's not a secret. We're getting drilled. It's not like we had a couple of heartbreakers where we didn't get a bounce or someone hit a tough 3 against us. It's not that. We're getting dominated."

... Has the ship sailed on us and Siena? Of course it has. We're not in that place. That's a long time ago. We're a different team now. I can't take back things that I said. I can't take back the vote. So you can keep throwing it in my face, but there's nothing I can do about it. It's over. I'm trying to focus on where we are today and trying to get ourselves in a position where I feel like we're in a position to make a run.

If the MAAC tournament was this weekend, we'd be a first-round exit. But it's not. If we can play better, whatever our record's going to be it's going to be, and it's not going to be good. But if we can stay together and fight and win some games, if we start to win some games, I feel like on Feb. 23, I don't think we're going to be in this place. If we are, we're not going to be able to compete.

... At the same time, if we don't start playing better, it's going to be a devastating, awful, disappointing year. It will keep coming back to things I said months ago and the vote I cast in September. That's something you will focus on. But that's so far gone. What we focus on amongst ourselves, internally, those things are so far gone. We live in there here and now. We can't really worry about how we played against Mississippi State or that I voted us first. ... We don't talk about that now. I hope to be talking about it at some point, but you have to be realistic with where we are. We have to get some sort of momentum, some sort of confidence, so we can make a push.

We're embarrassed. I'm embarrassed. We're disappointed. But I don't yet think we're defeated. I don't sense that from the kids yet. They're struggling. They're looking for answers. We're feeling the same way, which is 'holy cow, how did we get in this place?' But at the same time, we are. We communicate pretty well. We're on the same page.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Blog's midseason MAAC honors

PLAYER OF THE FIRST HALF: RONALD MOORE

COACH OF THE FIRST HALF: ED COOLEY

ROOKIE OF THE FIRST HALF: DEREK NEEDHAM

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE FIRST HALF: ANTHONY JOHNSON

Presenting the Blog's first-ever mid-season all-MAAC honors, which are up today because it's exactly the half-way point in the conference season.

First, a few ground rules:

1. League games are weighed more heavily than non-league games.

2. Some people have made all-league arguments in the past based on the flawed premise that all-league representation should be proportional to each team's performance.

That isn't how this team is drawn up, nor is it how I believe coaches should fill out their postseason ballots.

Siena is very well represented on these lists because its five starters are all having outstanding individual years -- not because of its 9-0 record.

Following that mindset, there's not a single Iona player on any of the first three teams. That isn't a slap in the face to Iona. It's simply a product of the Gaels having by far the best bench in the league -- a factor that has watered down the numbers of starters such as Scott Machado, who could likely average 20 points a game on certain teams, but who instead is one of several important components of Iona's roster.

3. Lastly, lest anyone accuse me of cheerleading for my alma mater when selecting top individual honors, let the record state that in my preseason rankings, I picked Fairfield sixth.

Without further delay, the Blog's mid-season honors:

FIRST-TEAM ALL-MAAC:

Alex Franklin, Siena: Easily league's best offensive post player
Ronald Moore, Siena: He's Jared Jordan, only much quicker
Ryan Rossiter, Siena: Averaging double-double in MAAC games
Frank Turner, Canisius: First in scoring, fifth in assists, sixth in FG%
Edwin Ubiles, Siena: 19.4 ppg, 62% from 3 in MAAC games

SECOND-TEAM ALL-MAAC:

Bilal Benn, Niagara: Toughest first-team omission. Still a darkhorse POY candidate
Julius Coles, Canisius: Sixth in scoring overall and in MAAC games
Tyrone Lewis, Niagara: Tied for overall scoring lead with Turner
Derek Needham, Fairfield: Second in assists, eighth in scoring
Rico Pickett, Manhattan: League-leading 22 ppg in MAAC games

THIRD-TEAM ALL-MAAC:

Darryl Crawford, Manhattan: 15.2 ppg in MAAC games
Clarence Jackson, Siena: Will be a POY candidate next year
Wesley Jenkins, St. Peter's: Can go off on any night
Anthony Johnson, Fairfield: Third in rebounds, first in blocks
Yorel Hawkins, Fairfield: Seventh in scoring, 13th in rebounding

FOURTH-TEAM ALL-MAAC:

Ryan Bacon, St. Peter's: 10 points, 10.7 rebs in MAAC games
Nick Leon, St. Peter's: Performance in double-OT win was dazzling
Scott Machado, Iona: Best player by far on a 6-3 team
Justin Robinson, Rider: Leads league in 3-point shooting
Ryan Thompson, Rider: Huge disappointment, but still 10th in scoring

ALL-ROOKIE TEAM:

Needham: One of most dominant freshmen in league history
Kyle Smyth, Iona: 41.3 percent from 3 -- tied for third in league
Sam Prescott, Marist: Fifth in FG% in MAAC games
Devin Price, Marist: Seventh in 3-pt shooting; leads team in assists
Candon Rusin, Marist: Tied with Smyth in 3-pt shooting

PLAYER OF THE FIRST HALF: Moore.

Ubiles has been remarkable in MAAC play, making him a very strong candidate. But Moore's assist numbers are mind-boggling: He's had five or more in 19 of 20 games and 11 or more seven times. His 2.8/1 assist/turnover ratio is almost an entire assist better than his nearest MAAC competitor, Canisius' Robert Goldsberry. And he's managed to keep everyone happy in a lineup full of scorers -- no small task when the Saints' fourth-leading scorer, Rossiter, would be the go-to guy on half of the teams in the MAAC.

COACH OF THE FIRST HALF: Ed Cooley, Fairfield

Even if the Stags were at full strength, Cooley would be a candidate simply for taking a team that finished 9-9 in the league last year and winning seven of nine to start the conference season. Having accomplished that feat despite missing his two best returning players (Greg Nero and Warren Edney) for the year makes him a virtual lock for Coach of the Year.

ROOKIE OF THE FIRST HALF: Needham

The Stags' point guard has been so much better than the competition for this award that he could take the rest of the season off and still be the clear frontrunner for Rookie of the Year. Barring injury, he should be the best Fairfield perimeter player -- and maybe the best Fairfield player overall -- in a generation.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE FIRST HALF: Johnson

With no obvious choice, I went with the Stags senior, who, in addition to being the feel-good story of the year for overcoming a life-threatening blood clot in his lungs, leads the league in blocks. But a number of other players are strong candidates, including Rossiter (tied for first in defensive rebounds, sixth in blocks); Benn (tied for first in defensive rebounds, fifth in steals); Niagara's Rob Garrison (first in steals); and Jackson (first in steals in MAAC play).

Saturday's stories

This time, Rider's loss to Canisius wasn't even a surprise.

The Golden Griffs won largely because they took care of the ball.

Want to find a team struggling more than the Rider men? You won't have to leave Lawrenceville.

Without Tyrone Lewis, Niagara lost again.

Rutgers' new soccer coach is a legend in greater Trenton.

Speaking of Jersey's State U, these guys aren't fans.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Canisius 74, Rider 58

Julius Coles scored 20 points for the Griffs.

When Rider suffered a double-digit loss last year at Canisius, it was a clear example of a letdown game, one in which a more talented and polished team lost because it turned in an uncharacteristically sloppy performance.

Last night’s game at the Koessler Center in Buffalo was different.

The result was similar — a 74-58 Canisius win — but this time, it was the continuation of a season-long trend for Rider, a team whose season is spiraling out of control.

The Broncs (10-11 overall, 3-6 MAAC) are only half-way through their MAAC schedule, but already have the same number of losses they had all of last year.

The Broncs, losers of three straight and six of their last eight, would need to win nine straight in the league just to equal the 12-6 record they finished with last year.

They’re below .500 for the first time this season and alone in seventh place in the 10-team MAAC — a scenario that seemed impossible at the outset of the season.

Frank Turner scored 21 points and Julius Coles scored 20 for the Golden Griffins, who have come a long way since a team composed of many of the same players suffered a 102-51 loss at Rider in 2007-08.

Justin Robinson scored 19 points, 16 in the first half, to lead Rider, which trailed only 39-38 at the half but quickly let the game slip away after that.

Ryan Thompson struggled again, finishing with 10 points on 2-for-10 shooting. Thompson and Robinson were the only players in double figures for Rider, which plays at Niagara tomorrow.
Carl Johnson’s jumper gave Rider an 18-13 lead, but the Golden Griffs answered with a 22-10 run to take a 35-28 lead on a pair of Turner free throws with 4:27 left in the first half.

Rider responded with a 10-4 run to close the half, but trailed at the break despite shooting 50 percent (6-for-12) from 3.

The Golden Griffs (10-10, 5-4) opened the half on a 10-3 run to take command, and never trailed by fewer than six after the opening minutes of the second half.

MAAC on ESPN networks

Two MAAC games on Feb. 12 will be nationally televised.

The MAAC and ESPN announced today that the Siena-Niagara game that night will be carried on ESPN2, while the Fairfield-Rider game will be on ESPNU.

Here's the MAAC's release.

Rider-Canisius

Even when Canisius was awful, the Griffs could count on Frank Turner.

Previewing the matchup between the Broncs and the Golden Griffs, who tip off tonight in Buffalo:

SCOUTING RIDER: In MAAC games, the Broncs rank sixth or lower in the league in every major statistical category. They’re eight in scoring margin – ahead of only Loyola and Marist – despite having played Marist twice. They’re also eighth in scoring defense, field goal percentage defense, offensive rebounding and field goal percentage; ninth in 3-point defense and defensive rebounding; and 10th in free-throw percentage. A loss would be their third straight, with another challenge ahead Sunday at Niagara. … Ryan Thompson (team-best 14.8 points) continues to be a factor but not a dominant force. He’s shooting 31 percent from 3 and is 1-for-10 from beyond the arc in his last two games – both double-digit losses. … Justin Robinson (12.7 points, 42 percent 3-point shooting) has been excellent in some games but quiet in others. He had 19 points last Friday against Saint Peter’s, for instance, but only six Monday at Iona. … Novar Gadson (11.3 points, 7.8 rebounds) is gaining strength after spraining his ankle Jan. 9 against Iona. … Mike Ringgold (10.9, 7.5) is averaging more rebounds but fewer points than a year ago. … Tommy Dempsey is still looking for a consistent option at the other frontcourt spot. Neither Jermaine Jackson (1.2 points) nor Brandon Penn (4.3) has been as reliable as the Broncs would like.

SCOUTING CANISIUS: The Golden Griffs, vastly improved but still inconsistent, have been the epitome of average in the MAAC. Not only are they 4-4 and tied for fifth in the 10-team league, but they’re also at exactly zero in point differential, having scored and given up 535 points. … Canisius is 2-2 in MAAC home games, having beaten Loyola and Iona but lost to Manhattan and Fairfield. A win would give the Griffs a two-game lead on Rider in the standings, while a loss would put them even, an important factor because the teams could potentially fighting to avoid the play-in round in the MAAC tournament. … Player of the Year candidate Frank Turner is second in the MAAC in scoring (16.9 points) and fourth in assists (5.1). … Julius Coles (15.3 points) is seventh in the league in scoring. … Greg Loggins (9.9 points, 5.5 rebounds) provides a big body at 6-foot-7, 240 pounds and a surprisingly smooth stroke from 3-point range, where he’s shooting 37 percent. … Robert Goldsberry, the center of attention for injuring Sien’s Alex Franklin with a hard foul on Jan. 11, is averaging 2.5 points and 3.7 assists. … Elton Frazier (8.1 points) is averaging 14 points in his last four games. He’s scored in double figures in four of his last five games, including a 25-point outburst Jan. 9 at Marist. … Tomas Vazquez-Simmons (6.2 points, 6.5 rebounds) leads the team in rebounding.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Thursday's stories

If Rutgers really has a home-court advantage at the RAC, it sure isn't showing.

Siena can use all the help it can get tonight against Loyola.

Phil Strum has a message for the MAAC.

Fairfield is one of several teams in its area in action tonight.

SI must believe in its own jink: It put Mark Sanchez and Brett Favre on its regional covers, but picked a Colts-Saints Super Bowl.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Press MAAC Index, Week 3: More of the same on top

With the way Ryan Rossiter is playing, Edwin Ubiles may be the fourth best Siena player.

This week's power rankings give me a chance to make a plea I've been meaning to make all year. Here's why: An anonymous commenter got on me after last week's rankings for saying that this year's Siena team isn't as good as last year's.

While I'm still not sold that last year's team -- which, lest anyone forgot, had a guy named Kenny Hasbrouck on the wing -- isn't better than this year's, I'd love to give that reader credit by name for lobbying on behalf of this year's team, which has looked more and more dominant as the year has gone on.

The more Northern Iowa, Georgia Tech and Temple pile up wins, the more it's starting to look like the St. John's game is the only thing that could be considered a bad loss for a team with Top 25 aspirations.

Given the reality that three of those teams are ranked this week, it's a safe bet that without the St. John's loss, SI's Seth Davis wouldn't be the only AP voter with Siena on his ballot. And even with that loss, I'm guessing more voters will join Seth and rank the Saints in the coming weeks.

So here's my plea: In the interest of making commenting as easy as possible, I'm not going to ban anonymous comments. If you really don't have the extra two seconds to write down your name, I've always let your comment go through anyway. But for the sake of good discussion, please, pretty please with a cherry on top, leave your name with your comment. If you don't post anonymously on message boards or in our live chats during games, don't do it in the comments section either.

With that out of the way, here's the PMI:

1. Siena: Records: 15-4 overall, 8-0 in the MAAC; RPI: 33; Position: Stayed the same from last week

Here's how well Siena's starting five has played: If I had to pick a Player of the Year right now, Edwin Ubiles would be the fourth guy on my list -- that is, my list of Siena players. When he hasn't been hampered by injuries, Ubiles has still been very good this year, but he's had less of an impact than Ronald Moore, Alex Franklin and Ryan Rossiter.

And though it's always dangerous to pick a team to go undefeated (see this year's Colts and Saints), I keep looking at Siena's schedule and wondering which games will even be close.

2. Fairfield: Records: 13-5, 6-2; RPI: 117; Position: Stayed the same

The more the Stags fall behind early in games, the more reluctant I become to rank them this high. Sooner or later, these halftime deficits are going to turn into losses, especially on the road. But given the kind of year Canisius is having, I can't penalize Fairfield for beating the Golden Griffs, who have played extremely well over the past two weeks.

Derek Needham has been talked about so much he's almost becoming old news, but that doesn't change the fact that he may be deserving of first-team all-MAAC honors.

3. Iona: Records: 13-6, 5-3; RPI: 76; Position: Stayed the same

Aside from Siena, there isn't a hotter team in the MAAC than the Gaels, who have posted back-to-back easy wins over Niagara and Rider and won nine of 11 overall. They've done all this without much of a post presence aside from Alejo Rodriguez, but they've shot so well from the perimeter and are so deep -- they predictably outscored Rider 31-16 in bench points Monday night -- that they've gotten along just fine anyway.

4. Saint Peter's: Records: 10-8, 5-3; RPI: 178; Position: Moved up one spot

Man, am I glad I wasn't at the Peacocks' game Sunday against Loyola, when they scored 14 points in the first half, shot 32 percent from the floor and 18 percent from 3, and somehow managed to WIN by five points.

But when you enter the game off of back-to-back impressive wins, you can afford to turn in an ugly performance as long as you win. I'm also impressed that they won despite getting only four points from Wesley Jenkins, who went off for 27 against Niagara and 26 against Rider.

They've had some awfully puzzling performances over the last two months, but nearing the half-way point, they're back in the same spot I had them in at the beginning of the year.

5. Niagara: Records: 11-9, 4-4; RPI: 137; Position: Moved down one spot

Choosing between the Eagles and their cross-town rivals at Canisius was the hardest choice I had to make this week. With the teams tied in the MAAC standings and touting relatively similar resumes, the first place I turned was their performances against common opponents.

Even that, however, didn't push me one way or another. Niagara, for instance, convincingly beat Fairfield, a team that swept Canisius. But the Golden Griffs thumped Iona, a team that recently finished a sweep of Niagara.

In the end, I chose the Eagles based on this factor: If you told me the teams were playing tonight on a neutral court, I'd bet on Niagara to win.

6. Canisius: Records: 9-10, 4-4; RPI: 176; Position: Moved up one spot

That the Griffs are even on the same level as Niagara speaks to the strides they've made over the last two years, when they've gone from a punchline to a formidable team capable of beating anyone in the league other than Siena.

Based on what I wrote above, I ranked them below Niagara, but they'll get a shot at their Big Four rivals for the first time on Jan. 29 at home.

7. Rider: Records: 10-10, 3-5; RPI: 168; Position: Moved down one spot

Tommy Dempsey swears the Broncs are as together now as they've ever been -- that no one is pointing fingers or quitting on one another. If that's the case, good for them. But it sure hasn't helped on the court, where Rider has lost five of seven and doesn't seem capable of beating anyone other than Manhattan, Loyola and Marist.

8. Manhattan: Records: 7-11, 2-6; RPI: 223; Position: Stayed the same

Much like Niagara and Canisius, Manhattan and Loyola are awfully close. I've given the benefit of the doubt, though, to the Jaspers, whose two wins have been far more convincing than the Hounds' two wins, and who have lost to Rider and Canisius by a combined three points.

9. Loyola: Records: 9-9, 2-6; RPI: 188; Position: Stayed the same

I really thought the Hounds would be better than they were last year, and even thought they'd have a chance to finish in the top four if they got good play from Shane Walker and continued stardom from Jamal Barney. But Walker hasn't been a huge difference-maker, Barney has regressed, and Loyola is lucky to have two wins.

10. Marist: Records: 1-17, 1-7; RPI: 340; Position: Stayed the same

I feel bad for Chuck Martin. He has to sit there after every game and try to find SOME positives -- a task that isn't easy when you're one of the worst teams in the country.

At this point, though, maybe the Foxes have nothing to lose. They're not in danger of going winless, which means they're not bad enough to go down in national infamy even if they lose all of their remaining games. That means they can focus on the development of a group of talented freshmen without worrying about wins and losses.

Tuesday's stories

What could be better than a cup of Joe and some hoops?

Surprising no one, Rider lost again last night to Iona.

Edwin Ubiles sat out with a back injury, but Siena still rolled past Manhattan.

Fairfield got off to another slow start, but still got past Canisius.

Mairst showed some signs of life in a loss to Niagara.

K-State beat Texas, and the Wildcats' students didn't even rush the floor. Great job all around.

Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis is still the lone AP voter with Siena on his ballot.

It's Election Day in my home state.

Jay Leno tells his side of the story.

Dempsey postgame quotes

Opening statement:

I think sometimes it's about when you play somebody in the schedule. Right now there's two teams: One hot and one struggling. They went at it tonight, and the team that was hot came out on top.

With the losses piling up, is it possible for your team to play a little looser now that there isn't pressure to be one of the top teams in the league?

I don't think we're feeling pressure right now. I think we were a couple of weeks ago when we started to struggle. I think now we're just trying to continue to lift each other up. I don't think we're at a point where we're saying we have to win, we have to win. We're just trying to focus on staying together and playing together. I thought there were some good signs tonight. I think almost contrary to what everyone would think, I think the losing has actually brought us closer together. Hopefully that's going to pay dividends down the stretch.

Anything Iona did particularly well in defending the perimeter?

I think they're a good defensive team. We knew that coming in, so we tried to get 3s in transition, at the back end of the press. Once they get their half-court defense set up, they're very hard to score on for everybody, not just for us. I did think that we got a lot of good ones in broken situations, like when we were breaking the press. To give them their due, they're very good defensively. I think everyone in the league knows that.

Did it seem like the three-point play by Ryan Thomspson that cut Iona's lead to four points woke the Gaels up?

And we fumbled, we actually had a steal after that, right around half-court, and we fumbled it out of bounds. We had a chance to really get it back to two or one at the time, so we're in that place right now. There seem to be a few of those defining moments in each half that aren't going our way. I think they hit a 3 and it was quickly back to seven and that's just kind of been the story of the last several games for us. I think if we stay together and we keep working hard every day, we still have talent in the locker room. Hopefully, maybe we'll start getting some breaks. If we start pointing fingers and we start to go south on each other, then we'll have no chance it it'll really get ugly. That's my focus. These guys (Thompson and Justin Robinson) as my captains, that's their focus.

I don't believe we're going to go away. I really don't. I know I might sound like a broken record on that, but I think we need to get a couple games in a row where we're playing better. I do think that there's a trust. We have won, and we know that. So there's a trust in how we play. I trust them because I've seen them have success. They trust me because we've had success together. If we never had any success, it would probably be easier to question some things. But we've played this way, we've been successful, and that's something that works in our favor right now, because at least we've had success before.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Willard postgame quotes

Dempsey's up later.

Impressed with the play of Trinity Fields (12 points off the bench)?

I thought Trinity really let the game come to him. He didn’t go in there and try to do something right away. He kind of got in the flow and picked his spots. He really did a good job of picking his spots and doing well. He really gave us a nice boost. He and Milan (Prodanovic) came off the bench and played really well.

Since we’ve played so many guys all year, I have a lot of confidence going to the bench. Guys coming off the bench are experienced and are good players, so there’s not too much of a letdown when they come in.

You guys are hitting a nice stride.

Yeah, I think defensively we’re really playing well. Even though we didn’t give up a great percentage on defense tonight, I thought we did really well of stopping, they’re a very good shooting basketball team, so holding them to 1-for-15 3s is something we needed to do and we did a good job of it.

I have so much respect for Ryan Thompson and Justin Robinson as shooters. Obviously Ryan’s a terrific basketball player. I wanted to have them take tough 2s and not open 3s. They really get going when they hit open shots, so I thought we did a great job of chasing them off the line and making them take 2s.

Surprised by the way things have gone south for Rider?

You know what? Someone asked me that the other day and I think they’ve played a very tough schedule. They’ve played a tough schedule. They’re a very good basketball team, and they’ve played a lot of tough games on the road. Being on the road, you don’t get as much practice. They’re still a very good basketball team. I think their schedule’s beaten them down more than anything else. I don’t think there are any problems with that basketball team.

Starting to get comfortable at home?

You know what, we were 4-0 in our non-conference. That was early December, so we were still trying to get rotations. I think most importantly, we’re getting good practice time. Guys are working on their shots, coming in extra, and that’s one reason why our shooting percentage has been up.

Iona 72, Rider 59

Full gamer up later at trentonian.com.

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. – For Rider, the result was disheartening but not surprising.

In a 72-59 loss to Iona, the Broncs fell deeper into a hole that looks increasingly hard for them to emerge from. They fell far short against a team that outplayed them from start to finish and dominated every facet of the stat sheet – a scenario that has played out repeatedly over the past month.

“I think sometimes it’s about when you play somebody in the schedule,” coach Tommy Dempsey said. “Right now there’s two teams: One hot, one struggling. We went at it tonight, and the team that was hot came out on top.”

With 10 MAAC games remaining, Rider (10-10 overall, 3-5 MAAC) is one conference loss away from equaling its season total from last year, when the Broncs went 12-6 in the league and were within a last-second Tyrone Lewis bank shot of their second straight MAAC title game.

The Broncs, losers of three of their last four, fell into yet another double-digit hole yesterday. As has often been the case, the surge they attempted to make was far from enough.

The Gaels (13-6, 5-3) are one of the hottest teams in the MAAC, having won four straight to pull into sole possession of third place in the conference. Scott Machado scored a game-high 20 points, Trinity Fields added 12 and Alejo Rodriguez eight points and nine rebounds.

Iona held the Broncs to 1-for-15 3-point shooting (6.7 percent) – Rider’s worst performance from beyond the arc in what has been an increasingly frustrating season.

“I have so much respect for Ryan Thompson and Justin Robinson as shooters,” said Iona coach Kevin Willard. “Obviously, Ryan is a terrific basketball player, but I wanted them to take tough 2s and not open 3s. They really get going when they make open shots. I thought we did a good job of chasing them at the line.”

Live from New Rochelle: Rider at Iona

Games of the Week

From an excitement standpoint, there's good news and bad news as we approach the mid-way point of the MAAC season.

We'll start with the bad news and get it out of the way: Barring a wholly unexpected set of circumstances, Siena is going to win the regular season title with room to spare, depriving fans the excitement of anything resembling a contested race.

Sure, Siena was the clear frontrunner from start to finish last year as well, but the Saints didn't clinch the regular season title until Feb. 18 and edged Niagara by a mere two games in the final standings.

By contrast, the Saints' win Saturday at Fairfield demonstrated -- in case it wasn't already clear -- that there's a bigger gap between spots 1 and 2 in the league than there is between spots 2 and 6.

But that brings us to the good news: Five teams are within two games of second place as we enter what should be a fun week.

My top five games to watch:

5. Iona at Manhattan, Friday, 9 p.m., ESPNU

This game is here more from a local rivlary standpoint than because of the implications it will have on the standings. After all, it's two tradition-rich schools separated by 10 miles, and the fact that it's on TV should add some extra juice. But it's not without its importance, either. The Jaspers have showed signs of life in certain games and are certainly capable of taking down the Gaels at home. For the Gaels, it's another chance to prove they're an upper-tier team by winning on the road.

4. Rider at Iona, tonight, 7:30 p.m.

As I wrote after Friday's loss to Saint Peter's, it's a virtual certainty that Rider will fall short of its expectations. But with that out of the way, the Broncs need to make sure they avoid the play-in round. To get going in the right direction, they to win at least one of their next three games, which are all on the road against quality opponents. I figured when looking ahead to this game a few months ago that one team would need to avoid a letdown. It turns out that team is Iona, which simply needs to take care of business and beat a team that it easily dispatched of nine days ago in Lawrenceville.

3. Canisius at Fairfield, today, 1 p.m.

The Golden Griffs are on a short list of the most improved teams in the MAAC and with a 4-3 record entering today's matinee, they could be headed for a top-half finish if they win a few games they're not expected to win. One such game is today in Bridgeport, where the Stags will be eager to get back in the win column after Saturday's loss to Siena.

2. Fairfield at Iona, Sunday, 3:30 p.m.

Few would have made this prediction two months ago, but it's possible this could be a preview of the 2-3 matchup in the MAAC tournament semifinals. The better Saint Peter's and Canisius play, the more impressive the Stags' wins in Jersey City and Buffalo look, but winning in New Rochelle would help separate them from the rest of the pack. Yet if Iona is the elite team it hopes to become, this is exactly the kind of game it needs to win.

1. St. Peter's at Niagara, Friday, 7 p.m.

Talk about teams heading in different directions. Ugly as the Peacocks' 48-43 win yesterday over Loyola may have been, the Peacocks are on a roll, having won three straight to gain at least temporary possession of third place in the standings. As for the Purple Eagles, the only reason their fall hasn't looked as hard as Rider's is the level of competition they've played. But like the Broncs, they need to win some games to make sure they're not playing on Friday night in Albany. Oh, yeah. This game being a rematch of last Monday's double-OT thriller certainly doesn't hurt.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Rider-Iona, Part II

Breaking down a matchup of two teams heading in different directions:

SCOUTING RIDER:
The Broncs, losers of three of their last five, rank near the bottom of the MAAC in most statistical categories. In MAAC games, they’re eighth in scoring margin, ninth in both overall and 3-point field goal percentage, eighth in field goal percentage and 3-point percentage defense, ninth in defensive rebounding and 10th in free throw percentage. … Ryan Thompson, yet to emerge from a season-long funk, is averaging a team-best 14.7 points but shooing only 40 percent from the floor, including 32 percent from 3-point range. … Justin Robinson (13 points, league-leading 44 percent 3-point shooting) led the Broncs with 17 points in Friday’s loss to Saint Peter’s. … Novar Gadson (11.5 points, 7.9 rebounds) is playing with a high sprain on his left ankle. He missed last Monday’s game at Marist but scored seven points in 24 minutes Friday. … Mike Ringgold (10.9, 7.5) has been held under 10 points in three of his last four games. … Jon Thompson (2.8 points) has started the last two games in place of Gadson. … Jermaine Jackson (1.2) has also started the last two, but has been a non-factor on offense.

SCOUTING IONA: Few teams in the MAAC are playing better than the Gaels, winners of three straight and eight out of 10. Iona blew out Rider last Saturday in Lawrenceville and followed that performance with wins at Loyola and at home against Niagara. Iona, first in the MAAC in scoring defense and second in field goal percentage defense, hasn’t given up more than 50 points in any of its last three games. … All-MAAC candidate Scott Machado, a sophomore guard, is averaging team bests of 12.4 points and 4.4 assists. He led the Gaels with a career-high 24 points last Saturday at Rider. …Freshman sharpshooter Kyle Smyth is averaging 9.4 points and shooting just below 40 percent from 3. … Junior forward Alejo Rodriguez (8.6 points, 6.4 rebounds) had a career-high 17 rebounds at Rider. … Sophomore guard Jermel Jenkins (7.5 points) has scored exactly five points in three straight games. … Senior forward Jonathan Huffman (6.6 points) is third in the MAAC in 3-point percentage at 42.6 percent, trailing only Robinson and Fairfield’s Mike Evanovich. … Junior guard Rashon Dwight is averaging 6.1 points and shooting 40.5 percent from 3.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Dempsey postgame quotes

Tommy Dempsey after Rider's 77-66 loss, the Broncs' third straight at Alumni Gym:

Another tough night. Another tough night for our team. We're just trying to find a way to battle through. It just seems like we're not playing well, but we're also not getting a lot of breaks out there. It seems like everything seems to be going against us during the course of the game, during the flow of the game. I think when you're not playing well as a team, the breaks don't seem to go your way.

We just have to try to keep fighting because it's too early to give in and because of the way everybody's so bunched up, the difference between finishing second or third and finishing seventh or eighth is still very small. But we just have to find a way to win some games.

Are you starting to think about finishing in the 7 to 10 spots now that we're getting a little bit closer?

I haven't given that any thought at all. There's just too much time left to start worrying about seeding. You start worrying about those things in the middle of February. Right now, again, we're just trying to focus on playing better, and it's just clicking with us.

Has it surprised you that you've played so poorly at home?

I'm surprised we haven't made more shots at home. But I think our play, you know, just hasn't been good in general. You can't think that just because you're home you're automatically going to play great. Normally, the ball goes in a little bit at home. I'm surprised we haven't made more shots at home, but you know, that's just where we are right now.

Are you concerned about the lack of production from low-post players?

You're going to get out-rebounded when you shoot 37 percent and they shoot 51 percent. You look at the rebounding and you think that's a sign, but they shot a good percentage so there weren't as many rebounds out there for us as there were for them. They missed 23 shots and we missed more so, the reason our rebounding stats or down and the reason that our assists stats are down a little bit is because the ball isn't going in the basket, so I think if we were scoring more, the rebounding stats would iron out, and we've taken care of the basketball in every game. Our assists are down because if you don't make shots, you don't get assists. Those are stats that are a little bit a result of not shooting well. To answer your question, because we aren't shooting well, it's crowded in there. It's tough sledding in there for Mike because they can bring a crowd around him and challenge us from the perimeter. That's what people are doing, and that's why we're not getting as many post baskets.

Would you like to get more out of players like Jermaine Jackson, Brandon Penn and maybe even Dera Nd-Ezuma?

I'm playing more guards hoping that we can loosen up the game with some shooting, because I look out there and can see the defensive styles. No matter who's out there in the post, there's not going to be a ton of space for them. So I'm trying to spread the floor with the guards, not only so we can shoot 3s, but so we can drive the ball to the basket. If Jermaine or Mike or whoever's in there, if they don't play them and somebody's out on the perimeter, it takes away a lot of the ability not only from the post game but from our lanes to drive to the basket, which are really shrunk right now. That's kind of way we've tried to spread the court a little more.

Was Wesley Jenkins' performance (26 points) just about a great player going off, or were you unhappy with the way you defended him?

What happened was, we had to try to turn the tempo up. We were trying to do that to help us score, so whenever you're out pressing, you're going to take some chances, and when that happens you're going to get some open shots. He got a couple in a stretch after we cut it to two, but we cut it to two with the press. He got free a little on the back end of the press, and made two 3s, but that's what all-league players do. We cut it to two, he hit two 3s and it was back to eight and we were chasing him tonight. He's a very good player, he gets 26 and they beat us. That's the name of the game. Your players have to play. He did a great job. Jenkins did a great job, Bacon did a great job with 18 and 11, and they got out of here with a win. That's where we're at right now.

To what extent have you had to chance what you're trying to do as a result of shots not falling?

We haven't. We play how we play. ... We try to be who we are. I think that's how you build a program. That's how we play. We want to play up-tempo. We want to stretch the defense, we want to shoot the 3, we want to drive the ball and share the ball. That's how we play. We're going to double the post on defense, we're going to trap some ball screens and try to get out in transition. And we play, the things that I wrote on the board tonight were on the board before the Mississippi State game.

This is how we're going to try to get out and play and share, and although it hasn't gone in a great direction, you don't just try to revamp who you are and try to become somebody that you're not, because this is a process. You can't scrap things that you've been doing well for three years because you're in a tough spot. I think you pull yourself out of it by just getting better at what we do, focusing on what we do, because that's how we're built. You build your team through recruiting to run and to press and to do those things, and to be built a certain way. We're not built right now to just throw the ball in the post all night long and just have a guy go to work all night long. That's not how we're built. So the fact that we're struggling shooting the ball is a major issue, but if we're going to be a good team from now until the end of the year, we're going to have to shoot the ball better. You can analyze it a hundred different way.

We're not getting bad shots. Alright, I didn't think we got a lot of good shots against Iona, but most of our games, we're getting good shots. We're missing layups, we're missing free throws. It's not just the 3s. There's a little bit of a lid on the basket or a big lid on the basket, and that's really affecting our entire mojo so to speak.

Are you worried?

Not yet. Not yet. I believe in these guys. I really do. I believe in Ryan and I believe in everyone else that we have, and we're going to get it done. We're not going to be in the play-in game."

Friday, January 15, 2010

Why Rider's regular season is likely already a failure

Forget what anyone else said on October. By Tommy Dempsey's standards this season has been a failure.

After Rider's 84-62 rout of Marist Monday night, Tommy Dempsey grew defiant, telling reporters that "people are quick to forget that we were 10-8 last year and we got it going."

The Rider coach's critics will rightly point out that blowing out a team that has won a grand total of one game during the first two months of the season is hardly a sign of "getting it going."

And anyone who thought the Marist win an aberration had that view quickly validated, when the Broncs laid another egg Friday night in a 77-66 loss to Saint Peter's.

But as I watched the Broncs get beat up and down the floor by the upstart Peacocks, I kept thinking back to Dempsey's "got it going" quote and putting it in the context of Rider's expectations this season.

Rider, of course, isn't even heading in the right direction, let alone beginning a 10-game winning streak that will catapult the Broncs back toward the top of the MAAC standings. But here's the thing: Even if they were beginning such a roll-- even if, as Dempsey indicated might be the case, this team is about to replicate its late-season surges of the last two seasons -- people would be fully justified in calling them underachievers, based not on any external expectations, but on the standards that the Broncs themselves set before the season began.

Lest anyone forget, this is what Dempsey told me during a sit-down interview in his office in late September:

"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."

Quotes like that -- which seemed reasonable, if a bit too cocky, at the time -- put the absurdity of Dempsey's Monday remarks in context.

This is a team that, before the season began, declared loudly and clearly that a replication of last year -- when Rider finished third in the MAAC with a 12-6 record -- would not be close to acceptable.

Fast forward to Friday, when Dempsey said the following after the Broncs fell to 10-9 overall and 3-4 in the MAAC:

"I believe in these guys, I really do. I believe in Ryan. I believe in everyone else that we have. We're going to get it done. We're not going to be in the play-in game."

Even without stepping back and looking at the big picture, it's possible Dempsey's declaration will be proven false.

Only three teams right now -- 2-4 Manhattan, 2-5 Loyola and 1-6 Marist -- are below Rider in the standings. The three teams tied for fourth in the league at 3-3 are all in action Saturday, and two of them -- Iona and Niagara -- are playing each other, meaning at least one will fall into a tie with Rider. But of the teams that entered Friday in a five-way tie for third, Rider had played the least challenging schedule by far. The Broncs are done for the year with Marist and still have two games left against both Fairfield and Niagara, in addition to two games against Canisius and one more apiece against Siena, Iona, Saint Peter's, Loyola and Manhattan.

That schedule provoked a long-time Rider season-ticket-holder to approach me after Friday's game and bluntly tell me "Ben, you might not see another win this year. I don't know if they have any left on the schedule."

I doubt the season-ticket-holder is right. Even given how badly the Broncs have played, I'd be shocked if they end the conference schedule on a 15-game losing streak. That's something that very few teams in the country are bad enough to do, and I don't think this team is close to entering that realm.

But let's back up for a second. Let's look at the big picture -- that we're talking about the team Dempsey picked to win the league in the preseason coaches' poll. We're talking about a team that wanted no business of finishing second, let alone playing Manhattan in the 8-9 game Friday night at the MAAC tournament.

In that context, Rider's regular season will be a failure barring both a miraculous turnaround and an unexpected collapse by Siena, which enters Saturday's game at Fairfield having won all six of its MAAC games by double digits.

Think about this for a second: Even if Siena loses four games the rest of the way -- something significantly less likely than the Jets hosting the AFC Championship Game next week -- Rider needs to win out just to finish in a first-place tie with the Saints.

Worse still, Rider -- which has lost its last two MAAC home games by a combined 31 points -- needs to go 9-2 in its final 11 league games just to finish with the same 12-6 record it finished with last year. And remember, this is a team that has trailed by 13 or more points in five of its seven MAAC games and is facing a schedule that's only going to get harder.

I was not among the people who thought Rider deserved a spot in the Top 25 after beating Mississippi State, nor was I in the camp that the Broncs had proven themselves against one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the history of creation.

But to a large extent, this team had me and a whole lot of other people fooled. My prediction that Rider would finish second in the league seems absurd now, but not much more absurd than the predictions made by every other publication, and by the MAAC coaches, not one of whom voted Rider below third in the preseason poll.

Even the biggest Rider detractor couldn't have said with a straight face back then that the Broncs would finish in the bottom half of the league standings. If anyone said it or wrote it, I neither heard nor read it. But kudos to the few fans who called the Broncs frauds in late November. They look more correct now than any of the rest of us.

Maybe Dempsey was right on Monday. Maybe this team is about to get on a roll, to turn a corner, and to finish the season with a surge.

Yet to believe Dempsey now you'd have to believe that a team that's been overpowered more often than it's been competitive is capable of flipping a switch and pulling a bigger turnaround even than those of the past two seasons.

Of course, none of this will matter if Rider gets hot in March, pulls a string of upsets and wins the MAAC tournament for the first time since joining the league in 1997. Yet that's a possibility only in the context that technically, any team winning any conference tournament is possible.

As far as the regular season goes, getting hot now -- unless that entails running the table or coming close to doing so -- won't do anything to change this reality:

Judging by Rider's own internal expectations, the regular season is already a failure.

Saint Peter's 77, Rider 66

LAWRENCEVILLE – This was yet another unexpected low point – a game that Rider needed to win but came up woefully short.

In a 77-66 loss to Saint Peter’s last night at Alumni Gym, the Broncs had neither the efficiency nor the energy needed to beat the vastly improved Peacocks, who pushed Rider around in the low post and dominated down the stretch.

The Peacocks, coming off a double-overtime win Monday over Niagara, were hungrier, quicker, and flat-out better than the Broncs, who squandered a chance to build on a 22-point victory over Marist.

Wesley Jenkins scored 26 points, Ryan Bacon added 18 and Jeron Belin 17 to lead Saint Peter’s, which outplayed Rider almost throughout.

Justin Robinson scored 19 to lead Rider, which has lost three straight at home and two out of three overall. Ryan Thompson scored 14 points on 3-for-13 shooting and Jhamar Youngblood added 13 off the bench.

Rider (10-9 overall, 3-4 MAAC) trailed by as many as 13 and led only twice – 2-0 in the opening minute and 12-11 with 11:39 left in the first half.

Saint Peter’s, quicker to every loose ball in the early going, rode Jenkins’ hot hand to a 23-14 lead with just under 10 minutes left in the half.

Rider used an 8-0 run to get within one after Robinson hit back-to-back 3s, but Ryan Bacon ended the run with a 3-point play, extending the lead to 26-22 with 4:31 left in the half.

At the half, Saint Peter’s held a 21-13 rebounding edge and a 20-6 edge in points in the paint. The Peacocks, bigger, stronger and hungrier, also led 6-3 in offensive rebounds and 8-1 in second-chance points.

The second half started with a glimmer of promise but ended up being more of the same, the Peacocks stretching the final rebounding margin to 43-29 and the final points-in-the-paint margin to 36-20.