Matt Lopez would sneak into Teddy Okereafor’s dorm room — as much as a 7-footer could sneak anywhere — and mark up the team poster hanging on the VCU transfer’s wall.
“I would come in,” Okereafor [oh-KEY-ruh-fur] says, “and be like, ‘When did I get a mustache?’ or ‘When did I get a tattoo on my neck?’”
The two transfers were redshirting their first year at Rider, per NCAA rules, and they had plenty of time on their hands when the rest of the team hit the road. Drawing on each other’s walls, as Lopez phrased it, became common practice, along with an array of other practical jokes.
“Teddy says I’m a goofball? Nah, I don’t know about that,” says Lopez, a fifth-year senior who transferred from Utah State after starting his career at La Salle. “I think that’s just me and Teddy’s relationship.”
It’s a relationship that has blossomed since Lopez, a New Jersey native, and his English chum first met during a pickup run on Rider’s campus two summers ago.
“I remember being pissed off because I was never on Teddy’s team,” Lopez says. “I wanted to play with him a little bit because I’m good at getting my guards open with setting screens and stuff. I was looking forward to playing on the same team with him instead of against him.”
The wait is long over.
Lopez and Okereafor are two of three first-year Broncs in Kevin Baggett’s starting lineup. Anthony D’Orazio, the third, is a graduate transfer from Lehigh and a childhood friend of Lopez’s.
That trio has helped Rider to a 6-2 start in MAAC play and 12-7 record overall. D’Orazio, a 6-foot-2-inch guard, initiates the offense and pesters opposing floor generals defensively; Okereafor, a 6-foot-4-inch guard, offers offensive versatility and the havoc traits he developed at VCU; Lopez, the center, leads the team in points and rebounds and demands attention in both the low and high posts. Together they’re an important piece of a team Baggett describes as “extremely close.”
“Those guys,” Baggett says, “they’ve not only brought experience to our team. They’ve also brought a level of confidence, a level of maturity and a level of just having fun, too, which is always part of the course as well throughout a long season.”
Okereafor spent his first two years of college under Shaka Smart at VCU. Before that, when he was 17 years old, his mother flew from London to Virginia with him, settled him into his dorm at Christchurch School and returned home. “I didn’t really think of it is as being a 17-year-old kid being alone in the world,” says Okereafor, who was named Virginia Prep League Player of the Year as a Christchurch senior. “I looked at it as me doing exactly what I wanted to do.”
All Lopez and D’Orazio wanted to do was play for the same college.
They grew up in neighboring developments in Southern New Jersey, according to Lopez, and played travel ball together from fourth grade through high school. They could have played together at local public school Washington Township, too, but D’Orazio opted for Camden Catholic.
Lopez and D’Orazio each committed to college programs as sophomores.
“During the recruiting process,” Lopez says, “I tried to get him to come to La Salle and he tried to get me to go to Lehigh.”
They remained close friends throughout high school and the early years of college. Lifting, shooting and eating together became a regular routine. So did double dates.
When D’Orazio faced the trials and tribulations of playing behind future NBA guard C.J. McCollum, Lopez broached the idea of D’Orazio transferring to La Salle. “Some things didn’t work out,” Lopez says. Then when Lopez decided to leave La Salle, D’Orazio wanted his friend to transfer to Lehigh. Lopez says Lehigh had no available scholarships.
Fortunes finally aligned last spring, when D’Orazio graduated from Lehigh with one remaining year of eligibility. He expressed interest to Lopez in spending that year elsewhere, and Rider’s center immediately spoke with Baggett.
“I was like, hey, let’s give this one last go-around, and said, ‘hey, my friend Anthony D’Orazio has a fifth year. Would there be any interest?’ and immediately coach Bags was like, ‘yep.’ It was like, ‘oh my God.’ It was eerie, like it was meant to be.”
Says Baggett: “Matt really was the reason why we brought Anthony D’Orazio to our program because he spoke highly of him, said Anthony wanted to come and play his last year with Matt. After having done our homework on Anthony, we thought he’d be a good fit for us, which he has been.”
D’Orazio also fit well with his prank-pulling suitemates, Lopez and Okereafor.
“He’s actually way louder than everyone thinks,” Okereafor says. “People think he’s a quiet kid that came from Lehigh, but he’s always joking, too.”
On the court, Rider’s no joke. The Broncs, a defensive-minded bunch, rank 109th in the nation with an adjusted 97.9 points allowed per 100 possessions, 37th with a 22.5 percent turnover rate and 45th with an 11.4 percent steal rate. And after a 2-5 start that included losses to Kansas, Michigan State and Georgia Tech, Rider has won 10 of its last 12 games.
That hot streak has lifted the Broncs into a three-way deadlock with Iona and Monmouth atop the MAAC. They’ll have an opportunity tonight to take sole possession of first against the Gaels, who dealt them a 77-64 loss on Dec. 10.
Nobody around the league expected Rider to be near the top as the halfway mark of MAAC play approaches. The Broncs had graduated Anthony Myles and Daniel Stewart, their top two scorers and rebounders, and opened the season with several unknowns, at least to the rest of the conference.
The three transfers, especially, fell into that category.
They’re not Stewart or Myles, but Lopez (11.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and Okereafor (10.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg) are Rider’s top two scorers and rebounders. D’Orazio, meanwhile, is averaging 5.1 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 21.9 minutes per game.
“They just fit the puzzle, so to speak,” Baggett says.
And they’re having fun doing it.