Let’s make Robert Morris’ offense great again

By @C_Cappella

If you’ve been living under a rock this basketball season, well, then good for you.

It’s been highly frustrating watching Robert Morris attempt to score. This game, after all, is about getting buckets. Outside of an 83 point, overtime-laden offensive outburst Saturday at St. Francis PA, the Colonials have scored 47, 56, 50, 57 and 54 points in their previous five losses.

RMU is the third-least efficient offense in the country, according to KenPom. They rank last in conference play in points-per-possession (91.3 points per 100 possessions).

The funny (or, maybe, not-so-funny) thing is RMU’s offense has gotten seemingly gotten worse the past few weeks. Mind you, this is happening when the Colonials are putting up one of the best defensive efforts in the Toole era. RMU ranks 85th in the country in defensive efficiency and second in the NEC. Only Mount St. Mary’s has been a better defensive team. It does not take a lot of points for this team to win games. Yet they can’t do it.

I’ve got a solution for how to fix RMU’s woeful offensive production.

It will change your life.

It will change the world.

Ready.

Here it is.

Make more shots.

(Just kidding. Well actually do make more shots. But it’s not that easy. I could be a politician!)

Give Toole credit, because he’s at least trying to get more creative with lineups and philosophies to help the Colonials score points. Recently, we’ve seen RMU run with more four-guard sets to start games. Big man Roberto Mantovani, who started a majority of the games in non-conference play, is reportedly injured and hasn’t played in the last three contests. It’s resulted in Dachon Burke starting with Kavon Stewart, Matty McConnell, Isaiah Still and Aaron Tate.

Burke’s presence has been a huge lift. I really mean this when I say he’s one of the best on-ball defenders I’ve seen at RMU. He’s a solid rebounder and he’s been pretty good offensively in conference play. Not great, but good. He ranks top-15 in the conference in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage.

Unfortunately, RMU’s positive offensive outlook kind of ends there.

There are smaller things; like, I bet you didn’t know Kavon Stewart is shooting 80 percent from the free throw line, Matty McConnell is shooting 36 percent from deep or Clive Allen is second in assist rate in conference play.

The problem is, all of these added up haven’t seemed to make a large indent for the offense as a hole. Allen is dishing the ball well, but he’s played 20 or more minutes in just five games this season. He also has a high turnover rate and is in a shooting slump. His effectiveness has been limited because of these problems.

McConnell’s shooting well from 3-point range, but he’s alone in that category. Lorenzen Wright is 8-16 from three. Dachon Burke is 5-11. Everyone else is shooting under 30 percent from three. As a team, the Colonials are shooting 31.7 percent from three in NEC play. That’s not awful, but not great by any standard. It ranks seventh in the conference.

(I’d like to add: The McConnell splits before/after his brother’s game-winner against the Knicks on Jan. 11 is a real thing. No one can tell me otherwise. Before that game, McConnell was shooting 19 percent from three. Since, he’s 19-48, a 39.5 percent clip. This is the only explanation. Let me live.)

RMU has a tendency to produce some awfully weird numbers, but this may be the weirdest: Opponents are averaging steals on just nine percent of RMU’s offensive possessions. That’s the fourth-best mark in the conference. You would think that means the team is doing a good job of controlling the ball…

…Which is the exact opposite of what’s happening. RMU is turning the ball over on 22 percent of its possessions, second-worst in conference play. They might not throw the ball to the other team too much, but they do have a problem throwing it out of bounds, traveling or committing offensive fouls. I cannot stress enough how bizarre that is. No other team in the league has that type of correlation. Usually, if a team isn’t getting the ball stolen from them, their turnover rate is low. That is the exact opposite for Robert Morris.

The real meat and potatoes of RMU’s offense stems from Isaiah Still. When he has good games, RMU usually wins. When he doesn’t, RMU loses. Splits:

In wins (five games):

  • 19.8 ppg; 53.8% (14-26) on shots from 2-point range, 42.8% (15-28) from 3, 65% (26-40) from free throw line.

In losses (16 games):

  • 12 ppg; 34.6% (34-98) on shots from 2-point range, 36.2% (27-102) from 3, 59.2 (45-76) from free throw line.

RMU, inexplicably, has also won both games where Still did not play; against Buffalo and Central Connecticut State. Kavon Stewart had really good performances in both wins.

This, of course, is not the end-all, be-all. Still has played really well in losses too and the team shouldn’t have to rely on just one guy – especially a sophomore – to carry the team every day. In an ideal world, the Colonials find a balance between Still taking over and using role players doing their thing. Even in a loss, I think we saw that Saturday at St. Francis. Stewart had pretty much all of the crunch-time buckets, Wright and McConnell were on from three and Burke was his usual swiss army knife.

Truth be told, I think RMU fans should be thrilled with the season Still is putting together. It’s been frustrating as hell at times, especially in this recent stretch. I don’t think it’s crazy to believe that Still’s knee has been nagging him. He tweaked it during the Virginia game, missed the following game against Buffalo and missed the game against CCSU about a month later.

I thought Still’s natural NEC comparison was FDU guard Darian Anderson, but even that might be off base. They have similar on-court styles, but from day one Anderson was a gunner. He took a majority of his team’s shots. Still didn’t do that last year. As a freshman, he took 19 percent of the team’s shots while on the floor. This year it’s 28 percent. The fact that his shooting numbers have remained nearly identical despite a MUCH heavier workload is a good sign. Hopefully as a junior, his efficiency increases.

The next evolution of Still probably comes from his mid-range game. RMU color announcer Jim Elias was the first person who publicly brought this to attention: Still has no mid-range game. When you watch him play, he’s either attacking the rim or spotting up from deep. There’s no in-between.

And I really almost mean that. Still shoots just 6.7 percent of his shots as 2-point jumpers, according to hoop-math. Second lowest on the team is Lorenzen Wright at 15 percent.

The mid-range game has been shit on in recent years by analysts because it’s the least-efficient shot in basketball. You’re more likely to get a better look by driving to the rim or get more value from a 3-point shot.

And that’s a theory I tend to subscribe to, but there’s still value in mid-range jumpers. Two points is two points no matter how you dice it. If Still could find an in-between game, it might help him get to the rim more. Defenders would have to be wary of pull-up jumpers. Off-ball defenders wouldn’t be able to crash to the rim every time Still drives. The thing I like about Still is he’s so smooth and natural playing at the rim – that should never leave his game, but he should diversify his portfolio. It’ll open up even more.

One of the most frustrating parts about RMU’s offense as a whole deals with free throw shooting. They’re shooting 63 percent from the stripe as a team, which ranks 328th in all of basketball and 9th in the conference. You Gotta Make Your Free Throws, gentleman. It’s the easiest part of the game. RMU went 2-11 from the line in the second half in last Thursday’s one-point loss at Mount St. Mary’s. Stewart has been really good from the line, especially in conference play. McConnell is a reliable free throw shooter too. Everyone else makes me feel queasy.

Finally, I want to talk about the big men. If you’ve read this much, you’re willing to read a little more. I promise this won’t be long.

Of the five forwards (Aaron Tate, Billy Giles, Braden Burke, Mantovani and Conrad Stephens), I would say there’s one guy who can consistently create for himself: Braden Burke.

The freshman has a nice assortment of low-post moves. He can finish with both hands. His footwork is second to none for a guy his age. We saw RMU really try and work it inside to Braden for stretches in the second half against St. Francis PA with mixed results. His field goal percentage has seen a nice bump (39 to 47 percent) in conference play.

Like most of the team, Burke’s biggest problem is at the free throw line. He’s an amazing 43-110 at the stripe this year. Folks, you do the math. That ain’t good. RMU essentially can’t put Braden in for late-game situations. What’s to stop teams from hacking him every time he touches the ball? The odds are very good that he’ll miss at least one free throw.

Tate is Tate. He’s an undersized forward built like an ox. I once compared his defensive skill set to Sisyphus. (I was younger then, leave me alone.) Tate ranks eighth in NEC offensive rebounding percentage and ninth in NEC field goal percentage. For a forward with no real low-post game, the numbers kind of speak for themselves. Tate scores by getting offensive rebounds and putting them back up for baskets. Which is nice, but it’s a variable relied on RMU missing shots, which is not nice. And when RMU runs into some of the NEC-elites like LIU and Wagner, offensive rebounds are hard to come by. Regardless, we’re only talking about 1-4 chances a game. If you’re asking Tate to get you buckets, things are going wrong. Very wrong.

Giles and Mantovani are both dealing with injuries. Giles has played more than five minutes just once in the last six games, which is a shame because he’s a reliable rebounder and capable of scoring in an assortment of ways when he’s feeling it. The thing I like about Mantovani is he’s Greek and looks like Hagrid from harry Potter.

I guess the biggest question is, how does this get fixed? RMU, as a team, doesn’t have a go-to offensive weapon. St. Francis PA and Mount St. Mary’s can shoot from three. Wagner and LIU clean up the glass. FDU protects the ball and offers 3-5 guys who can score in iso situations. What’s RMU’s “thing?”

Through 23 games, we still don’t really know. A guy like Wright can be extremely helpful on the offensive end with the way he spreads the floor but can be just as big a liability defensively. Braden Burke is a low-post player shooting less than 50 percent from the floor. Kavon Stewart will always be Kavon Stewart: extremely limited outside game but capable of getting hot at the rim and at his best when he drives and kicks.

With the athletes RMU has, I think these four guard sets are worth experimenting more with. The Colonials can try and become a team that runs the floor. No matter what, it’s pretty clear they’ll be limited and it’s going to be extremely hard to win three straight conference tournament games with “Maybe they can run the floor and hit some 3-pointers.” There’s not a real solutions. They’ll have to win with their absurdly good defense and hope 60 points is enough to win.

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