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Rider presents unusual mid-autumn challenge

Broncs top No. 18 Mississippi State, look to continue winning ways at JPJ; Cavaliers look to quiet MAAC foes

Rider is an unusual early season opponent for the Virginia basketball team, and not just because of its distinctive mascot: The Broncs.

Instead of being an early season "gimme" like many college basketball games major conference teams play in November, tonight's matchup between the Broncs and the Cavaliers at John Paul Jones Arena pits two teams against each other that seem to be on the same level. Rider, which knocked off then-No. 18 Mississippi State Nov. 13, is one of the top three teams in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference this year and has many experts predicting that it has a chance to take down perennial MAAC champion and NCAA Tournament competitor Siena.

"We are working on improving our offense in practice and preparing for a good Rider team," senior forward Jerome Meyinsse said.

Virginia similarly has high hopes for this season, its first with coach Tony Bennett. But after a loss to traditional Big East bottom-feeder South Florida, the Cavaliers must answer some questions about their offensive performance.

"When you're struggling to score and missing some looks, it wears on your defense," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. "Your defense has to hold you in there, but you gotta make some shots."

Virginia's defense will face a strong challenge in senior guard Ryan Thompson, who boasts a stat line that includes 17.5 points and five rebounds per game. Thompson, who was First Team All-MAAC and finalist for last year's MVP, attended both LeBron James' camp and Paul Pierce's camp during the summer in an attempt to improve his pure shooting ability. The effort has paid off, as Thompson is shooting .600 from the three-point line this year, up from last season's .422.

Apart from Thompson, the Broncs return three players that averaged double-digit points last season: junior forward Mike Ringgold at 11.4 points per game, MAAC All-Rookie selection Novar Gadson at 10.8 and junior guard Justin Robinson at 10.4. Ringgold is a tenacious defensive player and rebounder, especially on the offensive glass, while Gadson at 6-foot-7 presents challenges to those who try to guard him because of versatility. Robinson is lights out from behind the arc and has transitioned from point guard to shooting guard. The combination of veteran leadership and well-rounded talent makes Rider a particularly tough early season opponent.

"They're an experienced team and they shoot the ball extremely well," Bennett said. "That's a team that's very dangerous."

For Virginia, the key to the game likely will be whether it can improve its offensive performance. The Cavaliers shot less than 33 percent from the field against South Florida, a dismal performance from a team that plans to play possession-style basketball and slow the game to take advantage of good offensive looks.

Another compelling story for Virginia against Rider will be whether Calvin Baker logs additional playing time. Baker, a focal point for many complaints about last year's Virginia squad, is coming off knee surgery but saw some action against South Florida.

"He brings experience as a competitor, and certainly we wanna keep [him] - as long as he's playing solid basketball and playing well," Bennett said. "But he's not 100 percent yet - I think he'll tell you that - but he's getting closer"

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