At this time last year, freshman guard Steven Whitley was playing at Fork Union Military Academy, trying to prove to Division I coaches he could still play at a high level even after breaking his hip.
At this time last year, junior walk-on Conrad Stephens was just getting his feet wet to the Division I scene. He was being used as a practice player for the women’s team before Toole asked him to suit up to fill an empty bench.
Going into the year, absolutely no one thought Stephens would be playing a significant role on a team hoping to get hot at the right time. The same could mostly be said about Stephens, who was equal parts bad and hesitant to start his freshman campaign.
But here we are.
These two guys played a huge role in Thursday’s win by playing to their strengths. If they continue their current play, they can help make two of RMU’s biggest weaknesses less significant.
Whitley is able to use his big build (for a guard, anyway) to get to the rim, and that was on full display Thursday. He shot 5-6 from the floor, including a make on his only three-point attempt, and went 5-6 from the line to put the game away. Of his five shots from the floor, I can’t think of one that was a mid-range jumper. He didn’t settle.
“We told him his nickname is Diesel, not finesse. Get to the basket,” head coach Andy Toole said of Whitley after Thursday’s game.
The numbers support that even more than you think. 34.7 percent of Whitley’s shot attempts are at the rim, according to hoop-math.com. That’s a team low. However, his field goal percentage at the rim is an astounding 76.9 percent. That’s a team high. Robert Morris has one of the worst offenses in college basketball. Anyone who can score at an efficient rate is a plus.
This Whitley is like a complete 180 from what we saw Whitley committed 14 turnovers in his first 78 minutes of the season. Now? He has the 10th-best two-point field goal percentage in conference play and has committed six turnovers in his last six games.
As for Stephens, his rebounding has helped Robert Morris in a big way. He grabbed five boards in Thursday’s win. Robert Morris hasn’t been a program that hangs its hat on rebounding, and that’s been the case this year. The Colonials are eighth in offensive rebounding percentage and ninth in defensive rebounding percentage in the NEC.
In the past, that would be fine, but this team is just so inefficient offensively that they need to capitalize on small advantages.
Saturday, Stephens played just three minutes and registered no rebounds. Perhaps his biggest problem for consistent playing time is where he fits in defensively. It’s not like he’s a bad defender, but may lack some of the ideal athleticism or consistency to play on the wing or strength to anchor the 2-3 zone.
At least in my opinion, three minutes is too little for any game going forward. Stephens has proved he’s no less of a defensive liability than Andre Frederick and a better rebounder. He brings instant energy off the bench. Maybe St. Francis Brooklyn was just a bad matchup, or he struggled in practice… I really don’t know.
What I do know is in three of the last four games Stephens registered at least 10 minutes, RMU won the offensive rebounding margin by a significant amount.