Why not Robert Morris? Colonials can win wide-open NEC

By @C_Cappella

Will Smith has acting credits for 49 films dating back to 1990. The world loves Will Smith – maybe not his out-of-the-blue EDM single released in October – but he’s still the Fresh Prince. The guy’s in great movies.

One movie that wasn’t so great was Wild, Wild West (1999). To spare you the details of this demonstratively bad movie, just know this: Smith, playing a government agent, and his partner are tracked with hunting down an evil techno genius plotting to kill the president of the United States named Dr. Arliss Loveless.

Loveless appears midway through the movie. He has no legs. You might not have needed to know that, but now you know. Legless Loveless introduces himself to the viewing audience during a party where he explodes from the papier-mâché head of Abraham Lincoln. He then says to the crowd:

“Ya’ll looked live you’ve seen a ghost. It’s me dear friends, alive and kicking. Well, alive anyway. We may have lost the war, but heaven knows we haven’t lost our sense of humor.”

That line, said by a legless evil genius, is exactly how I’m approaching this Robert Morris basketball season. This is a young group that is going to struggle -sometimes comically – with its offensive inefficiency. At the same time, no one should sleep on this program.

The Colonials have won 10 and 14 games, respectively, the last two seasons. It’s the total amount of wins they had in 2013, Andy Toole’s third season as head coach. For a fan base that’s been spoiled for the better part of a decade, back-to-back seasons of 10 and 14 wins (plus no postseason play) is pure agony.

In the previous 10 seasons, RMU: lost to Syracuse (by seven), Michigan State (by 15) and Villanova (in overtime) in the NCAA Tournament, lost back-to-back years in the NEC championship, won NIT games against Kentucky and St. John’s, then won another NEC title, defeating North Florida in the NCAA play-in game before falling to eventual-champion Duke, a game they trailed by 10 with 12 minutes remaining. Robert Morris was the heavyweight champion of the NEC.

In 2016, Marcquise Reed transferred to Clemson, Rodney Pryor couldn’t hit a 3-point shot and RMU was too young (and offensively challenged) to hang with the big guns in the NEC.

2017 was promising thanks to the emergence of Isaiah Still, the steadiness of Kavon Stewart and Aaron Tate and the promising play of Dachon Burke, Matty McConnell and others.

That team won 14 games, found an identity as a defensive-oriented team, upset LIU-Brooklyn in the first round of the NEC Tournament and played damn well enough to defeat Mount St. Mary’s in the NEC semifinals, a game they led with five minutes remaining. Even with the graduations of Stewart and Tate, it felt like a foundation had been set.

Then the offseason happened. Still transferred. Clive Allen transferred. Damn near everyone transferred. Robert Morris returns only two players (McConnell and Burke) who played in a game for RMU last season. From the outside looking in, the recruiting class seems very athletic and talented. How will it translate? Will this group figure it out over the course of five months?

Honestly, I don’t know. Nobody knows. And where does that leave Robert Morris? In pretty much the same boat as everyone else.

2018 seems like as good as time as anyone for a comeback tour. Robert Morris will be back, alive and kicking.

***

St. Francis (PA) opened the NEC Coaches Poll as the preseason No. 1 thanks in large part to the fact that they return a majority of their impact players. Mount St. Mary’s, which won the NEC last season, did not.

That’s the biggest story entering the 2017-18 season. Wagner will bring back Romone Saunders, who missed last year with injury, but lost Michael Carey, Corey Henson and Mike Aaman. Fairleigh Dickinson’s best player broke his foot. Arguably two of the NEC’s best young talents – Miles Wilson and Elijah Long (Mount St. Mary’s) – also transferred out. That puts a big onus on Junior Robinson and a cast of new characters.

There are a few teams I really like this season because I’m confident in their identities. The Mount is going to press, plus Robinson might be the favorite for NEC Player of the Year. I think Sacred Heart can become a team that overpowers team with size. I’m a big believer in that offense operating through forwards Joseph Lopez and De’von Barnett. I’m less of a believer in FDU than most, but assuming Darian Anderson returns from injury, they should be able to score against most everyone.

Which brings us to St. Francis PA.

The Red Flash are the preseason No. 1 and feature two players on the all-NEC preseason team (Keith Braxton, Isaiah Blackmon). Their biggest impact loss was center Josh Nebo, who was probably blocking shots on his plane ride to texas A&M, where he’ll play college basketball next season..

Here’s what I like about St. Francis:

-Experience: Point guard Malik Harmon is returning from injury. Due to Harmon’s injury last season, Jamaal King saw valuable reps as a sophomore. He’s not a great shooter, but he’s certainly not a guy you want to leave open. He’s also a pest of a defensive player and can dish the ball.

Randall Gaskins, Blackmon and Braxton gel together one of the most dangerous, athletic group of wing players in the conference. All of those guys can shoot the hell out of the ball from 3-point land. In fact, Blackmon was the sixth-leading 3-point shooter in the country last season.

-Offensive efficiency: The Red Flash were the best offense in the conference last season, scoring at a clip of 106.6 points per 100 possessions. They led the NEC in 3-point percentage. We’ve seen the wave of 3-point shooting take over the NBA. St. Francis has clearly embraced that.

What I’m worried about:

Nebo was the linchpin to last year’s defense, which wasn’t that good to begin with. St. Francis gave up109.7 points per 100 possessions last season, a figure that predictably dropped when NEC play started. They were still sixth in NEC defensive efficiency.

St. Francis was tops in the conference in block percentage and FTA/FGA*. A large part of that was due to Nebo, who blocked everything and was rarely in foul trouble. Can a big man fill his shoes? Can a big man fill even half of his shoes?

St. Francis is extremely athletic. They have wing players who have the measurables to defend at a high level. Now, they’ll have to do it.

There’s also the 3-point shooting. To be clear, I love the way St. Francis moves the ball and gets open looks for guys. I think that’s a great style of play. However, in last year’s NEC Championship game, they shot 6-of-19 from deep (and turned the ball over 17 times, another Achilles heel). If the Warriors have a bad shooting game during the NBA Playoffs, they just play the same team again. If St. Francis has a bad shooting night from deep in the NEC Tournament, they’re going home. I think there’s a way to beat them; it starts by slowing the game down, crashing the offensive glass and defending the 3-point line, even if that means giving up the occasional good look at the rim.

***

Which brings us to Robert Morris. I’ve spent the last 1,000 words detailing some of the weaknesses of every team. Obviously, RMU is not short on those.

The Colonials lost their best offensive player (Isaiah Still)… which won’t help an offense that was bottom-10 in offensive efficiency across college basketball last season. The burden is now on Matty McConnell to carry the offensive load. McConnell is a great defensive player who really started to come into his own offensively in the second half of the season. Can he be the team’s best offensive player night in and night out? What if he gets injured?

I’m confident in this group because of their defense. RMU was the best defensive team in the NEC last season. In my opinion, Dachon Burke is the best perimeter defender in the conference. The class of incoming freshmen and JUCO transfers is basically a list of 6-foot-6 wing players designed to play defense.

I hardly doubt that wasn’t by design. Toole has talked about getting back to the core of the program. That core is toughness and defense.

Conference opponents shot 29.4 percent from 3-point range against RMU last season. In fact, the Colonials were sixth-best in college basketball last season in 3-point defense. Throw in some athletic wing players like Chris Coalmon, Koby Thomas, Malik Petteway and Xavier Williams, and you have a recipe for even more defensive success.

Petteway is a name to keep an eye on. As Burke continues to develop as a two-guard, I think Petteway is a guy who can carry some of the offensive scoring load.

I trust this team because of its defense. RMU is in a nice spot this season. Expectations are low. A lot of guys will get the chance to earn minutes. The offense might be humorous at times, but the defense is going to be relentless.

That is what I trust. Let this team fly under the radar, figure it out, then surprise everyone in the NEC.

The conference is wide open. Let’s see if the Colonials can take back what was theirs.

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