NEC preview part III: Robert Morris

Welcome to part III of our four-part mega NEC preview. Today, Chris and Lee focus only on Robert Morris. It’s magical. If you missed part I, focusing on the bottom five of the conference, click here. if you missed part II, focusing on the top five of the conference, click here. Tomorrow, we will post our complete NEC predictions.

BY CHRIS CAPPELLA AND LEE KUNKEL

6. Robert Morris (10-22, 8-10)

Coach: Andy Toole (seventh year, 120-87)

Postseason: None

KenPom: 299

Biggest losses: Rodney Pryor, Elijah Minnie, Steven Whitley

Key game: The Colonials play crosstown rival Duquesne on Dec. 6 at PPG Paints Arena. Last year was the first time since 2010 the Colonials lost to Duquesne. This will be a nice chance to play in front of a potentially big crowd and stick it to your rival.

On to the preview!

Chris: Lee! Lee! It’s here! Robert Morris basketball plays tomorrow! I know I’m fired up. So much has changed since the end of last season. You got a promotion. I moved to Virginia. Donald Trump is the president-elect. We need basketball now more than ever. How are you my man?

Lee: You clearly forgot to mention Joel Embiid is playing basketball. That’s most important. But I am good man! I think we’re in for a fun year of hoops. I mean, the last college basketball game was likely the greatest game ever? Nothing like college hoops man.

Chris: There’s nothing quite like it. I am so intrigued by this Robert Morris team. I have so many thoughts. There are so many different directions this team can go.

First, just some facts. Robert Morris’ win totals from 2012 to 2016 (in order): 26, 24, 22, 20 and 10. Forget Making America Great Again. What has to happen to Make Robert Morris Basketball Great Again?

Lee: Chris, this really could go many ways. I want to flash back to 2006. That year Robert Morris really established their identity. You listed those above win totals. Impressive stuff. You can even flash back a few years and list 26 (2008), 24 (’09), 23 (’10), and 18 (2011, Toole’s first year). In ’06 though, the foundation was laid. The team went 15-14 overall and 10-8 in the NEC. They were coming off multiple losing season, but young players like AJ Jackson, Tony Lee and Jeremy Chappell all came together and helped the Colonials right the ship. The following year, the “dynasty” began.

This season, I want to see 2006. Young guys competing. Forming an identity. Wins would be nice, but a foundation needs to be laid first and foremost. We’ve talked about it a lot in past articles and conversations. RMU got away from who they really were; grit, toughness etc. I want to see more of that. A true commitment to the program.

Chris: And here’s one thing I think we can both agree on: The roster is shaping up to form that way. It starts in the frontcourt.

This team missed Aaron Tate so much last year for all the reasons you listed. He’s a tough, competitive guy. That sets the tone. Tate is back. Billy Giles is another guy. Here’s an older, mature player. He does nothing but takes care of his business day in and day out. He’s tough as hell. Even some of the new, lesser known or lesser used guys are the same way. You don’t think Conrad Stephens is playing with a chip on his shoulder?

And the talent in the frontcourt is there. RMU STUNK from three-point range last season. I don’t see how that’s going to get much better. If that’s the case, there are some guys who can really make a difference in the frontcourt. I love Giles working with his back to the basket. I’m really, really excited to watch Roberto Mantovani go to work. I think freshmen David Cole and Braden Burke will see some playing time too. Burke was honorable mention all-Michigan in high school last year. His potential excites me. I know you’re excited about the frontcourt. Want to expand?

Lee: You covered most of it. I agree too, it will be the deepest and likely best unit on the roster. My big question, how will Toole utilize it (The Sixers have the same issue!!!)?

How many of these guys can play on the court at the same time? Can they play the wing in the 2-3 zone? Toole will have his hands full with that. Burke excites me the most. You mentioned his high school accolades. This kid seems very skilled and has great touch, size and a pedigree of winning. I think he could be a focal point on both sides sooner, rather than later.

Chris: I want to ask you about Kavon Stewart. I think like last season, he’s the most significant piece to this year’s team. Agree? What should we expect from him?

Lee: I would agree. When he plays well, RMU plays well. We’ve been waiting for him to become that next great RMU point guard, and this is his last opportunity. I think some of the expectations aren’t fair to K simply due to the guys that proceeded him and the comparisons. With that said, he needs to play better this year Chris.

He’s had the same issues since he arrived on campus. Can he shoot just enough to open up the drive? Can he finish at all at the rim when teams take away his left hand? And most importantly, can he stay mentally focused when things aren’t going his way? There seems to be many times he takes himself mentally out of the game after a few missed shots or turnovers. That is my biggest question for the senior point guard.

Chris: That seems right on the money. Last year, I touted Kavon as the best point guard in the NEC. Clearly, that was off, but I think the overall point was when he’s at his best, he can take games over (see Bryant NEC semi game 2015).

He just kind of is who he is at this point. After three years, why should we expect that he’s suddenly going to have a respectable jump shot? Why will he suddenly be able to finish with his right in traffic? That’s also a problem with running a two point guard set with him. If Kavon doesn’t have the ball, he’s of little value. I wouldn’t mind seeing Toole mess around with him working with the second unit more and letting Matty McConnell work as a ball handler.

Speaking of McConnell, I really hope his shoulder injury was the root concern of his shooting woes. He’s certainly not afraid to shoot from deep. He was second on the team in three point attempts last season (154). He only converted on 26.6 percent of them. As a team, RMU was 349th in the country in team three-point shooting percentage. That’s almost dead last in COLLEGE BASKETBALL!

All of those 20 win seasons we talked about at the beginning of the post came because RMU could live at the three point line. I’m not saying that’s the only way to win, but they clearly have to be better from three as a team. I’m looking at JuCo transfer Lorenzen Wright Jr. to help with that. I think McConnell will be better. More than anything, I’m looking at Isaiah Still to make “the” second year jump similar to Fairliegh Dickinson’s Darian Anderson.

Lee: Chris you SOB. You read my damn mind. I was just about to say I can’t go any longer without mentioning Still. My bold prediction this season: Isaiah Still makes the jump, finishes first team all-NEC and contends for NEC player of the year. I think he’s that good.

Chris: WOW.

Lee: As a freshman, I saw a lot of Lucky Jones in him. His jump shot will need to improve and there are certainly things that Lucky will always be better at, but from a versatility standpoint, I see it. Still could really attack the basket, and that was on a roster that couldn’t shoot! Imagine having a few 40 percent or even 35 percent three point shooters around him! We’ll expand more on him later, but I wanted to get that in writing.

As for Matty, I agree with you. Let’s hope the injury held him down. Based off his shooting numbers from high school, I think it’s fair to say that. I’m almost viewing him with a blank canvas this season. Playing with a dislocated shoulder could not have been easy.

Wright intrigues me. He’s got a nice shot and good size. I wouldn’t be shocked if he was Toole’s next JuCo gem.

Chris: I like Still. You are much higher on him than me, but I like him a lot. I think he perfectly sums up where this team is at. I think Still is a year away from being a NEC superstar. I think this whole team is a year away. Still is a little green, we have no idea what we’re getting from McConnell. Guys like Wright, Burke, Mantovani, David Cole and Clive Allen are playing Division I basketball for the first time ever. It’s going to be an adjustment. We’ve seen guys come in and struggle playing in a zone for the first time. I expect a lot of those things.

I don’t remember entering a season without ever having a definitive feeling one way or another on a Robert Morris team. I mean, who the hell is even going to start? Who is the crunch time lineup? I think over the course of time, a Stewart-McConnell-Still-Wright-Tate lineup will be their most effective.

I think they’re more talented than some of the teams ranked ahead of them. I’m not sure how that will transfer into the games.

Lee: I like that lineup. I think by season’s end, Braden Burke will work his way into the picture. I also want to mention Dachon Burke. The versatile wing/guard was listed on NYC Buckets freshmen to watch list. He’s long and athletic. He seems a little raw, but could really take off once he adjusts. There are minutes to be had at the wing and guard spots.

Finally, onto our expectations. Every year that we have been associated with the program –for good reason– it’s NCAA tournament and a championship or bust. Anyone who has those expectations this year is probably going overboard.

I’ll go back to 2006. .500 ball, but a true young core and identity developed. I think this team can and should contend for the four seed and a home game in the NEC tournament. Anything more would surprise me, and anything less than 6-8 in the standings would shock me. Your thoughts?

Chris: That’s what will be really important. Let’s have a core stay intact that can get everyone excited. Along the way, I think they’ll win some basketball games. The non-conference schedule is tough. I can maybe see four wins there. The only thing that matters is conference play. I think they’ll end the season as the four seed.

1,700 words later, I think it’s safe to say we haven’t left any stone unturned. We’ll have our NEC predictions and a Penn game preview ready for tomorrow.

Let’s basketball.

You can follow Chris Cappella and Lee Kunkel on Twitter @C_Cappella and @Kunkel5.

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