Into the numbers: RMU’s defense

The other day, I took a look at RMU’s offensive identity and how tempo and spacing plays a role in that. This time around, I want to talk a little more about defense.

First, a history lesson. When it comes to defensive efficiency, aka points per possession, Robert Morris has been right around the NCAA average almost every year in the Toole era. In fact, they’ve ranked in the top 175 in defensive efficiency every year Toole’s been coach except for 2014, and that team went 19-12 overall, 14-2 in conference play and won an NIT game against St. John’s. I think that turned out okay.

I look at points-per-possession instead of points-per-game because I find it a more true measure of defense. A team that averages 70 possessions is more likely to score more points than a team that averages 60 possessions. Catch my drift?

Robert Morris has not been a good defensive team so far this season. I know this not just by stats, but by my eyes watching (and re-watching, and re-watching again) film. Always trust your eyes.

Robert Morris is giving up 104.4 points per 100 possessions, according to KenPom. The nation average is at 102.0. RMU ranks 237 overall in defensive efficiency, which would be their worst mark since 2007 when Mark Schmidt was coach.

There are a lot of simple ways to improve this. RMU turns the ball over at a high rate. Turnovers are more likely to lead to easy buckets. In fact, if you look at the guys with some of RMU’s highest turnover numbers, they’re guards. Kavon Stewart, Jordan Lester and Steven Whitley have three of the four highest turnover percentages on the team. When your primarily ball handlers are turning the ball over so much, that’s just not good. Crazy analysis, I know.

Rebounding is another problem. Teams are getting longer possessions because they’re rebounding their misses. More specifically, they’re rebounding 34.5 percent of their misses, an unbelievably high rate. That’s like for every 14 shots, teams get five offensive rebounds. Yikes.

So those are the “easy” things to fix. Get a little tougher inside, collapse the glass a little more and just get a few more rebounds. Easier said than done, of course.

Then, you get to the things that maybe stats can’t quantify, or at least don’t fully explain. According to beat writer Chris Mueller, Toole said in their last game, Oakland had 69 possessions. In 60 possessions RMU had set defenses, Oakland scored just 55 points. That’s .91 points-per-possessions. Anything under one point per possession is good! Good job! In nine transition possessions, Oakland scored 18 points. Two points-per-possession. Very, very bad.

That goes back, a little, to the turnover problem. Teams are more likely to score off of turnovers. Usually after a turnover, there’s an odd number rush or the defense just isn’t in good position to defend.

There’s also the issue of effort and inconsistencies. I can remember moments in games where RMU gave up buckets just because everyone didn’t run back hard enough. That’s not a coincidence, either. teams see that on film and know they can run, knowing the Colonials are prone to falling asleep at times. Experience doesn’t matter in situations like those. I’m sure that’s been pointed out several times in film.

When we speak about inconsistency, you can really point to a lot of the young guys. There’s been a lot of sagging off of shooters when the ball gets inside the paint. The Oakland game is a perfect example. Max Hooper, one of the best three point shooters in the country, took 17 three’s in that game. 17! These quotes from Toole after the game sum up a lot of the problems.

“Hooper, who was 8-for-17 in 29 minutes, probably could have taken 117 three’s and look exactly the same from number one to number 117. He shoots the same shot each and every time, He was 6-for-12 from three. That’s his reputation.” 

And then a few minutes later…

“Coming into the game, he had taken 49 shots, and 49 of them were threes. Leaving the game, he took 17 more tonight, so 66, I was a political science major. So 66 three’s and 66 shots on the season, so it’s a little disappointing he gets up 17, to be honest.

“In the last couple years, playing a shooter like that, I’m not sure he would get six three’s off because that would be a point of pride and contention in our locker room,” Toole said.  

That quote said a lot to me. Toole is not only praising Hooper, but you could tell he was a little upset with him getting of 17 three’s. In set defenses, it’s not really an effort thing. The team just has to play more aware.

So will it get better? The easy, and probably obvious answer, is yes. I probably could have, and maybe did, write this exact same article. Last year, Robert Morris gave up just 98.8 points-per-100-possessions in NEC play. The year before that 99.5, second best in the conference. The year before that, 98.7, best in the conference. See the trend?

Obviously, playing competition similar to size and skill will be helpful. The drop off from Max Hooper to, say, Ben Millaud-Meunier, is noticeable. Is that what you want to hang your hat on at this point of the season? Just banking on guys in the NEC being worse than the competition you’ve already faced?

I like to think not.

The reality is, though, things will just get better with time. Forward Aaron Tate, who is rehabbing a leg injury, will clean up a lot of the rebounding issues. In the meantime, maybe Elijah Minnie plays a little more center to take advantage of his rebounding.

Toole played Rodney Pryor and Isaiah Still at center against Oakland. Yes, the circumstances were unfavorable, but maybe he’s just going to take the best rebounders, stick them in the middle of the zone from time to time, and just hope that that helps cut possessions.

Guys like Lester, Still, McConnell, etc. will also get better in the 2-3 zone, a defense they’ve never played before. It takes time to learn defense.

Robert Morris has always been able to hang their hats on defense. As long as Toole is the man in charge, it’s just a matter of “when”, not “if” these problems get corrected.

–Chris Cappella


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