Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Mirror Homecoming: Q&A with Ben Doody

'Mirror Sports' Q&A with Ben Doody, "The Trentonian"
The Mirror: Having watched him all season, how impressive is Rider forward Jason Thompson?  Is the NBA-hype well deserved?  How would he rank among the best MAAC players you've covered in your career as a writer?
Ben Doody:
 He's very impressive, the hype is certainly well deserved, and I can say without hesitation that he's the best player I have seen in five seasons covering the MAAC. 

You can tell by looking at a stat sheet that he's the best player in the league. The only player in the country with a better rebounding average is Michael Beasely, who's probably going to be the national player of the year and the first guy taken in the draft. And he's averaging 20.1 points -- the second best total in the league -- even though he's double-teamed virtually every time he touches the ball. 

But what you can't necessarily tell from looking at a stat sheet is how athletic he is. His biggest asset as an NBA prospect is that he runs the floor like a guard and can handle the ball in the open court. Sometimes big guys end up with the ball in the open court after picking up a long rebound and look like they're about to trip over their own feet as they run awkwardly down the court. When Jason gets the ball, he actually beats people up the floor and has the vision and passing ability to find teammates and start a fast break. 

He's also become very good at passing out of double teams. Last week at Siena, Rider scored 59 points in the first half, and the biggest reason for that was that nearly every time Jason touched the ball, he either scored or kicked it out to a guard for a wide-open jumper. 

There are a lot of factors involved that make it difficult to predict where players will fall in the draft. You don't know which underclassmen will declare and which players will come over from Europe, for example. But if things break his way, he could be a mid-first-round pick. 

2. Mirror: As well as Jason Thompson has played this season, how much credit does head coach Tommy Dempsey deserve for Rider's success?
B.Doody: I wrote a column last week addressing that very question. My main point was this: everyone in the MAAC knew how good Jason was coming into the year, and the coaches still picked Rider to finish fourth in the conference. I think any time a team exceeds expectations or wins more games than the overall talent level might suggest they should, the coach deserves a lot of credit. 

Tommy has done a good job keeping Jason focused when there have been a dozen NBA scouts at every game, and he's also done a good job bringing along a pretty young team. The Broncs start two freshmen (Justin Robinson at point guard and Mike Ringgold at power forward)  and a sophomore (Ryan Thompson at small forward), and their best player off the bench and backup point guard (Matt Griffin)  is also a freshman. As Ed Cooley knows firsthand, winning with young player isn't easy. 

It certainly makes it easier when you have an NBA player on your team who's a leader in the locker room, but there's no question Tommy has done a very impressive job. 

3. Mirror: Is it safe to say at this point that the MAAC Championship (regular-season and postseason) is a two team race between the Broncs and Siena?
B.DoodyWith four games to play, it would certainly take something drastic and completely unexpected for anyone else to win the regular season title. Had Rider held on and beat Siena Sunday in Lawrenceville, it would have taken a collapse of '04 Yankees proportions (that one's for you, Keith) for Rider to not win it. Now, it's going to come down to the wire. 

As far as the tournament goes, I don't think that's a two-horse race by any means. 

This, I think, is the best way to sum it up: I don't think Rider or Siena is as good as Marist was going into the tournament last year, and the Red Foxes lost in the semifinals. I think as many as six teams have at least some shot at winning it, which means that....

4. Mirror: Who is your "sleeper" team to make a run in the MAAC tournament come March?
B.Doody: If by "sleeper" we mean a team that's totally off the radar but could be dangerous, I can't pick Rider or Siena, nor can I pick Loyola (picked second in the preseason poll), Niagara (defending tournament champion) or Marist (defending regular season champ that was tied for first place for a week during the regular season). 

That means Fairfield, the top team in the standings that I didn't mention above,  is the best option to be a sleeper. The problem with the Stags, as you guys know very well, is that for whatever reason, they have not showed up for close to all of their games. There is no excuse for losing games like the one they lost at Canisius, and if they hadn't bounced back by beating Niagara, people may have looked back on that loss as something that set the program back a year. But -- and it's a big but -- when they have come to play, they've posted a few victories that any team would love to have: at Loyola, at Siena and at Niagara. 

So I think if they show up to play for every game in Albany, they have an outside chance to catch a few breaks, pull a couple of upsets and come out on top. 

5. Mirror: Are you at all surprised by Fairfield's lackluster season and struggles in 2008?
B.Doody: I couldn't be much more surprised, and here's why: 

Name an ingredient that should lead to a major improvement over last year, and the Stags had it: 
1) All but one significant player back from a team that won 10 of its last 14 games last year. 
2) A team loaded with young players who one could expect to make major strides. (There are some different variables involved, most notably a big gap in talent, but look at where UConn has gone from last year to this year simply because a bunch of freshmen turned into sophomore and REALLY grew up in a year). 
3) A full year for the player to get used to Ed's system and style, and for Ed and his staff to become get a handle on which buttons to push and what it takes to do to win in the MAAC. 

When the preseason coaches poll came out, the first thing I thought was: wait a second; this team finished sixth last year, has everyone back, and is only supposed to finish sixth again this year? I thought the coaches really snubbed the Stags, and I also thought that since they had a better conference record last year than Rider and seemingly more room for improvement, they'd be better than the Broncs this year. 

So far, that obviously hasn't played out the way I thought it would or, I'm sure, anyone in Fairfield thought it would. 

But the best thing about the MAAC if you're a team in the middle of the standings is that with the exception of the teams that have to play in the play-in-round, everyone has the same opportunity to win an NCAA tournament bid. 


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