Rider did not have to look far after their previous boss left for a new job, but that didn’t make life uneasy after Tommy Dempsey announced he would be leaving for Binghamton.
Associate Head Coach Kevin Baggett was quickly put into an awkward situation, hearing from parents of Rider’s recruits while wondering about his own status as he began to pitch his idea for Rider basketball’s future.
“I had parents calling me but at that time I just told them, ‘Hey, just sit tight, let’s see what happens,’” the six-year Broncs assistant said. “It was a tough process because you’re kind of in the middle of this whole thing hoping that you get it but there’s no guarantees… I had [the parents'] support though which was great. I had the players support, which was awesome.”
The Rider administration opened an internal interviewing process which allowed Baggett to meet with Athletic Director Don Harnum to discuss the basketball program.
“We sat down and met for about four hours and talked about a lot of different things that he’d like to see and a lot of things he liked and a lot of things he wanted to address differently,” Baggett said. “By the end of the meeting we parted ways for a couple of days and then he came back he said, ‘Hey I made my decision and we’re going to promote you and keep this thing moving.’ So it was a good time for me then.”
The transformation from assistant to head coach complete, Baggett said he would like to bring more of a focus on team basketball.
“I want to preach team more than what we’ve done in the past,” Baggett said. “Instead of having one or two guys lead our team in scoring, to me I’d like to have five guys in double digits because to me that exemplifies more of a team than just a couple of individuals leading our team.”
The Broncs ranked ninth in conference play in defensive turnover percentage (18.1%) last season and are planning on looking to press more often this season. This should lead to more opportunities to test the depth of Baggett’s bench.
“We pressed some when Coach [Dempsey] was here, I want to do that more,” Baggett said. “If I’m asking them to press and put all their energy into pressing and getting up and down the court in transition, then I’m certainly going to need to rely on more than maybe seven or eight guys. I’m hoping to get somewhere around 10, I don’t know the amount of minutes at this point but that’s kind of the direction I want to go.”
Rider struggled defensively last season, allowing opponents to shoot 48.5% from two-point range which ranked 200th in the country. However the Broncs struggles were worse on three pointers, opponents shot just under 40% of their field goals from behind the arc against them making 35.8% (241st).
On the offensive end, Baggett credits Dempsey with coaching a great scoring offense, but feels that if they can improve on defense that will help make them less dependent on a few scoring options.
“I just think that we need to get better on the defensive end because at times when we suddenly struggled offensively, we couldn’t hang our hats on the defense,” Baggett said. “I want to balance that a little more when we struggle offensively we want to be able to know that we can get stops, that we can get defend guys and give ourselves a chance to be in the game.”
The seamless transition from Associate Head Coach to Head Coach helped Baggett keep a recruiting class that includes five players and St. John’s transfer Nurideen Lindsey who is appealing to the NCAA to play at the start of this season.
Meanwhile one new NCAA rule that has helped Baggett in his transition is being able to work out the incoming class of freshmen during the summer session.
“We’ve had the luxury of being able to work these guys out this summer, which in the past we haven’t been able to so it was a little bit of a learning curve early for those guys especially coming in,” Baggett said. “We’ve tried to close that gap a little bit with this summer so I’m going to lean on those guys to help contribute somewhat as well.”
The new rule allows for incoming freshmen to enroll in summer school courses and participate in team activities, such as workouts and conditioning, for up to eight weeks and for a maximum of eight hours per week. This new rule allowed the Rider staff to work with each player individually as they consider where each player fits on the roster.
“We did more individual work, just trying to get these guys to break some of the bad habits these guys had in high school and develop some better workout habits,” Baggett said. “I think they all bring different things to the table, I think they’re all talented in their own way. Now it’s just a matter of seeing how these pieces fit into the broader scheme of things.”
Rider will need to count on the freshman class to help add depth to a lineup that returns just six players from last year’s team.
“I do want to play some of those guys and I need those guys to be ready,” Baggett said. “I need their ears to be wide open and their eyes to be wide open and just get off to a good start in the classroom because that’s the big part too. A lot of these guys don’t understand that with the freedom that they have now that it’s not really as much to do as they think it is. If they say ‘Oh I only have one or two classes today so I got time,’ no you don’t have time because your day is structured more on the collegiate level than it is on the high school level. Just letting them understand that I’m going to need to call on them sooner than later because I only have six returning guys from last year’s team.”
Despite a change in job title, the most important thing for Baggett is making sure he maintains strong relationships with his players.
“Something that will be important for me is just knowing our players, I think that’s so important,” Baggett said. “I care for these guys. I genuinely care and love our players and in order to get the best out of them I think kids have to understand that you genuinely care for them and when you’re getting on them it’s not personal, it’s just to try and motivate them and maximize their abilities.”
“I don’t think our relationships have changed, obviously my title has changed and my responsibilities somewhat, but I still want to have an open door policy. I still want these guys to be able to talk to me because at the end of the day, I want these guys to be comfortable and I want to know when there’s something on their mind.”
After 16 years of being an assistant and watching Rider as an assistant for six seasons, it’s Baggett’s turn to be the head man on the sidelines.
“You know as an assistant, you hope this day comes but it’s never a given,” Baggett said. “So I’m looking forward to it, there’s always the uncertainties the things that you don’t know and as an assistant you can always make the suggestions that’s 7-8 inches away from the head coach’s seat but it all falls on me now.”
Rider will host Robert Morris on Nov. 9 in their season opener. Baggett will be looking for the Broncs to get off to a better start than 2011-12. Rider opened at Robert Morris last season, falling 83-57. The Broncs then stumbled out of the gate, starting 1-10 in their first 11 games. Baggett said the key to starting off strong will be to reinforce the message of learning from last year’s slow start.
“Just really talking about them from our experience last year having gone through it,” Baggett said. “We lost a couple ones in overtime, a buzzer beater here and there, that could have changed the complexion of our year.”
The Broncs 1-10 start included two home losses in overtime to Ivy League opponents Penn and Princeton. They rebounded to finish 10-8 in the MAAC and clinch the fifth seed in the conference tournament.
“I know that towards the second half of the year we played well but we were already reeling and we were already trying to catch up,” Baggett said. “Reminding these guys of the experience we’ve already been through and how precious, it’s still in a lot of our guys minds and we need to get off to that because a lot of these same teams we lost to early on last year we’re playing again early on this year.”
Rider will face Robert Morris, Stony Brook, Princeton, Drexel and LaSalle returning games from last season. Rider will also travel to South Carolina and Southern Methodist as part of the Hoops for Hope Classic before playing two games Mexico.
When his team steps out on the floor for their first practice of the season Baggett wants to make sure his team is improving every day.
“I’m a big John Wooden fan,” Baggett said. “John Wooden very rarely talked about championships and all of that other stuff you have to build up to. He talked more about getting better every day, and that’s the way I want to talk to our guys. Getting better every day in the classroom, on the court as people and if we do that and we get better every day then hopefully that will put us in position to be successful in the end.”