Game of tempo? RMU looking for right fit

There’s 1-8, then there’s Robert Morris being 1-8, then there’s the way Robert Morris is 1-8. These are all distinguishable things.

No one blinks when Mississippi Valley State starts a season 1-8. In fact, 1-8 would be an improvement on their last two seasons. MVSU is not expected to be all that good at the sport of college basketball. That goes for a handful of other teams out there.

When Robert Morris goes 1-8 to start a season, some eyebrows are raised. Even last years rollercoaster team, albeit more talented (but seemingly full of more problems) finished the non-conference season 4-8. When RMU is 1-8, there are probably some questions like “What is going on in Moon Township?” followed by “don’t count them out until NEC play”. All of that is fair.

The most concerning aspect is how the Colonials have gotten to that point. Turnovers galore? Poor free throw percentages? Lack of aggressiveness? RMU seems to be making the same mistakes game in and game out. Yes, this is a young team, and yes, they have played a difficult schedule, but at some point there has to be some sort of improvement.

Obviously, the coaching staff can’t go out on the floor and play the game for the guys. With that being said, I think this year more than any previous, head coach Andy Toole is struggling to find the right rotations.

There are a lot of factors that even go into that. Injuries play a part. Aaron Tate was able to go for game one and has missed the rest since. Matty McConnell missed a few games with an injured shoulder. Elijah Minnie missed Saturday with an illness, and Jordan Lester couldn’t go in the second half of the game with an illness too, Toole said postgame.

It’s hard for the staff to get guys comfortable like that. Having a role and knowing when it’s expected to be used is important. This was discussed at length with Lucky Jones coming of the bench last season.

Even with all of this, there seems to be a harder time for finding defined roles. Saturday, with all the injuries and illnesses and foul trouble, was a microcosm of that. Toole pointed to a Kahlil Felder 9-0 run to end Saturday’s first half as an example.

“I think maybe I’ve got to manage those three minutes a little but better, those four minutes a little bit better. Maybe I should say, ‘hey I know that we’ve done well making some shots and running some early offense but maybe we want to manage that so we can go into half with a five or a six point lead,'” he said.  “I’ll look at it and see if I can do a better job there.”

The rotations are settling in. Fredrick and McConnell come first off the bench. Lester comes in shortly after. Maybe Steven Whitley plays. We’ll see how these things change when (if) Aaron Tate gets back. While I don’t think there’s a longevity with running a short bench, it might be necessary given the talent level.

What I want to look at is finding an identity. What is RMU’s identity? In many ways, that can be tied to tempo. Last year, Robert Morris was a pretty quick team. We know this not just by watching, but by numbers.

KenPom has a stat called adjusted tempo. Without getting too technical, adjusted tempo factors in projected possessions per game a team would have if they faced a team of like-minded tempo. Through nine games, RMU is slightly above the division I average. Last years team was the same way, then slowed down in conference play. The offense benefited greatly, posting the most efficient offense in the NEC.

What tempo does this team want to play? What’s the identity? I think the staff is still trying to figure that out. Traditionally, Andy Toole teams are a little slower than the D-I average. In fact, some of his most efficient offenses have been the slowest ones.

I go back to that quote, that top one where Toole says “maybe we want to manage that so we can go into half with a five or six point lead”. I read that as “let’s slow things down at the end of the half, use the shot clock, pray for some stops and feel good about ourselves in the locker room”.

But clearly, there’s a struggle to that. There was a point where Rodney Pryor and Isaiah Still were taking turns anchoring the zone. And you know what? It was kind of awesome. Obviously, that wouldn’t happen with a healthy Elijah Minnie or Tate, or if Frederick wasn’t in foul trouble OR if Billy Giles just needed a breather. It took incredible circumstances, but it may be the beginning of something.

For better or worse, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this team embrace some smaller lineups that sprint up and down the floor. I say this for a few reasons.

1) Everyone thinks they’re a three point shooter. Minnie and Giles, the team’s most consistent bigs, aren’t shy about shooting the three ball. On Saturday, there were a few three-on-one opportunities that resulted in three point shots. If this team is going to continue to shoot the three ball at such a high rate, maybe it’s best to just embrace that as the identity and run with it.

2) Building off of that, it’s just not in this team to grind things out and get to the foul line. This isn’t a team that runs through its bigs on the block. They got the benefit of several whistles Saturday, which was super encouraging, but that’s been out of the norm. Plus, outside of Pryor, anyone who has proven they can get to the line doesn’t hit free throws anyway.

I’m not sure if small ball and airing it out is the best way to go, but it’s intriguing enough to see how it plays out, especially with Minnie anchoring the zone. His size and shot blocking prowess is a great commodity. It could help him get some higher percentage looks, draw some fouls and maybe run a little more pick and roll as the only true “big” in a Stewart-McConnell-Still-Pryor set. Someone has to take the pressure off of Pryor, and Minnie looks like he’s going to have to be the guy.

Of course, none of this works without improved defense, but this is just the beginning. More on that later.

–Chris Cappella
@C_Cappella

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