Humble ‘MVP’ in AE tourney

During the America East men’s basketball tournament, a Binghamton fan held up a sign reading “AE Tourney: Rivera’s Revenge.”

That sign was a response to Friday’s conference awards ceremony banquet, in which the league’s leading scorer, D.J. Rivera, was picked to the all-conference second team. Many thought Rivera was the frontrunner for Player of the Year and would at least be a lock for the first team. Instead, Marqus Blakely was named the Player of the Year for the second season in a row.

According to America East commissioner Patrick Nero, some conference coaches snubbed Rivera with their all-conference votes to protest an NCAA ruling that allowed him to be eligible to play this season without sitting out a year after transferring from St. Joseph’s University.

“Some of our coaches, certainly not all of them, felt that the NCAA ruling allowing transfers to be eligible right away was unfair,” Nero said. “Because of that, they chose to leave him off their ballots. Most of them, a majority of them, had him on the first team.”

Nero’s opinion on the selections echoed those of pundits and fans around the league.

“I think it was unfair; he certainly was deserving of first team all-conference. There are easier ways to protest the NCAA ruling without negatively impacting a student-athlete who deserved recognition,” Nero said.

Neither Rivera nor Binghamton head coach Kevin Broadus publicly criticized the decision. But Rivera brought his trademark intensity to the quarterfinal and semifinal games, and made a statement with his play on the court.

In the quarterfinal game against No. 9 Hartford, Rivera struggled with his shooting, hitting just three of his 12 shots to finish with 12 points. But he made his presence felt on the glass, where he picked up 11 rebounds — an impressive number for a shooting guard.

“D.J. stopped D.J. tonight,” he said after the game.

But on Sunday against No. 4 New Hampshire, Rivera made good on the signs around the arena and played one of his best games of the season, scoring 26 points and eight rebounds. With every big play he made, Binghamton fans chanted “M-V-P.” And with every missed shot, Albany fans on the opposite side of the gym chanted “M-V-P” in sarcastic response. Just as the game was a see-saw affair, so was Rivera’s play. He made hero shots and missed contested looks.

With 11 seconds left, the game was in the balance when New Hampshire inbounded the ball down one point with an opportunity to win the game. Rivera made his loudest statement of the weekend when he stole the inbounds pass, raced toward the Binghamton student section and dunked in front of his roaring fans to put the Bearcats up three.

As his teammate Emanuel Mayben shot free throws to seal the win, Rivera pumped his fist and briefly stared at the opposing fans on the far side. It was the closest thing he did to protesting the AE coaches all weekend.

“That last play is a play MVPs make,” Broadus said. “He may not be MVP of the league, which is understandable because the right guy got it, but he’s the MVP for this team, and that’s all we worry about.”

Broadus likes to tell his team, “Don’t be bitter, be better.” He and Rivera did the right thing in keeping silent about the all-conference teams. And while Blakely and three other of the five first team all-conference players were knocked out in the first day of the tournament, Rivera led his team to the America East finals.

Or, as another Binghamton fan’s sign stated less graciously, “Hey Blakely, Cry Me a Rivera.”