No matter where you look for information on the 2011-12 season for the MAAC the theme remains the same: regular season champion Fairfield and MAAC Tournament finalist Iona will stage a two-team race for the title. But while the Stags and Gaels are most certainly contenders for the league's automatic bid don't forget about Tommy Dempsey's Rider Broncs.
Rider finished second in the MAAC last year with a 13-5 conference record (Iona had the same) and posted the conference's best road record in league games (8-1). So to ignore the Broncs, who return a number of key pieces and add some solid ones as well, would be a mistake that would also motivate this veteran group.
"You have to create a mindset in the locker room that everyone thinks it's a two-team league and you're not in it," said Dempsey, whose program has won 82 games over the last four years. "They've heard all too often this off-season that the MAAC is a two-team league and they're taking it personally."
Leading the way for Rider will be senior small forward Novar Gadson, who averaged 13.7 points and 5.8 rebounds per game and was a Second Team All-MAAC selection. Whatever the Broncs need done offensively the Philadelphia native can get it done, and Gadson will be among the top players in the conference this season.
"He's ready to be 'the guy'," said Dempsey. "We've had good seniors so it's almost the 'wait your turn' mentality [with regards to leading the team]. Every step of the way Novar's been very important for us."
Gadson, who had micro-fracture surgery just days after Rider fell to Iona in the MAAC semis, is a full go in preseason workouts according to Coach Dempsey and it's more about shaking off the rust than anything. That's a good sign for Rider because in Justin Robinson and Mike Ringgold they have to replace a pair of seniors whose contributions were seen in areas other than just the box score.
"The reason we've sustained success is that we've had good players in each class," noted Dempsey, who has seen players such as the Thompson brothers (Jason and Ryan) display their talents in front of the Broncs Zoo. "We've had depth in the program and guys have been ready to step up when it was their turn."
Robinson's graduation results in an opening at the point, where he played well enough to earn First Team All-MAAC honors as a senior. Into that role steps a pair of options: junior Jonathon Thompson and freshman Eddie Mitchell. Thompson was second on the team with an average of 3.2 assists per game, and he played a variety of roles on the perimeter. If he and Mitchell can get acclimated to their responsibilities don't be surprised to see them on the floor at the same time.
"Point guard play is something I'm looking forward to watching," said Dempsey. "Jon's transition will be key because we can play them together." Also in the backcourt rotation will be sophomore Anthony Myles, who averaged a shade under six points per game last season and will be an outstanding player at Rider according to Dempsey. But there's another piece of the puzzle that Rider will bring out, one that could very well end up being one of the best players in the MAAC.
Virginia transfer Jeff Jones, who sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules, will more than likely be the starting two-guard come November and has the ability to put points on the board in a hurry. Jones was known as a three-point shooter during his time in the ACC, but the year off has allowed him to both fine-tune and add to his game.
"In bigger conferences you tend to get put into a box if you're not a first or second team all-league player," noted Dempsey on Jones. "He makes jump shots but has become more of a ball-handling, attacking guard."
Jones has added the ability to pull up off the dribble in addition to getting to the rim, and his mid-range game has progressed nicely. Add those tools to the ability to knock down shots from deep and it's easy to see why there would be so much optimism in Lawrenceville. But to talk about Rider and focus solely on the perimeter would be a mistake, especially when considering the fact that they've got one of the best young forwards in reigning MAAC Rookie of the Year Danny Stewart.
Stewart averaged 7.3 points per game as a freshman but his biggest contributions came on the defensive end and on the glass. Stewart led the team in rebounding (7.1 rpg), blocked shots (1.1 bpg) and field goal percentage (58%). The next step in Stewart's progression as a player: becoming the offensive threat that Rider can throw the ball to on the block with the expectation of scoring points.
"Any good team has to have balance to score and for us that was Ringgold inside," said Dempsey. "Now we expect to throw Danny the ball and get some points in there."
Coach Dempsey also noted that Stewart is a better shooter than Ringgold, who was limited offensively as a result. Rider can use Stewart in a variety of offensive situations, including pick-and-pop plays out to about 15 feet. Stewart won't be alone inside either, with Brandon Penn back for a final campaign and freshman seven-footer Junior Fortunat performing well in preseason workouts. Losing Ringgold hurts, but Rider has the pieces in place to make sure they continue to get quality play in the frontcourt.
Defensive consistency is something that Coach Dempsey touched on as well when it comes to areas where he'd like to see improvement, with the Broncs finishing third in the MAAC in field goal percentage defense last season. And with the experience and talent on campus, there's no reason to think that the Broncs can't improve upon their 23-11 record of a season ago. Add in the feeling that they're being overlooked, and the Broncs could very well surprise outsiders.
"I like teams that don't have a sense of entitlement," noted Dempsey. "Teams that have a chip on their shoulder and something to prove." This group seems to fit the bill.