Litmus test coming for Robert Morris, NEC

By @C_Cappella

After a slow start, Robert Morris is off to a better-than-expected open to the ’17-’18 season. The Colonials are winners of six of seven after opening the year with three straight losses.

I haven’t posted some comprehensive thoughts in awhile (or ever), so I wanted to touch on thoughts large and small:

Dachon Burke just won his third consecutive NEC Player of the Week award, the first time that’s been done since Feb. 2011 when Central Connecticut State’s Ken Horton did it. The sophomore guard is averaging 17.3 points-per-game, leads the NEC in steals (2.67 per game) and is shooting 53.6 percent from 3-point range.

This, obviously, is a huge jump in production. Burke was solid as a freshman, averaging 7.6 points on 42/31/73 percent shooting splits while grabbing 3.9 boards per game and was, at least in my opinion, the team’s best perimeter defender (and one of the best in the NEC).

The biggest jump has been in Burke’s 3-point shooting, where he’s 15-of-28 from the season. But that doesn’t really tell the whole story. Yes, Burke has become a better knock down shooter, but he’s really creating a lot of these shots for himself. The guard has added a beautiful crossover, step back jumper to his arsenal. This kid has gone from “promising” to “NEC superstar” overnight. I think a lot of us could see Burke was going to be good. I’m not sure anyone thought he would be this good, this fast while still maintaining his defensive prowess.

-Somehow, someway the most experience player on the roster is junior guard Matty McConnell. From afar, he seems to really be thriving in a leadership role. McConnell is a great leader for this team — the guy works his ass off on both sides of the floor. There was a moment in Sunday’s win against Drexel where he sprinted back on defense to block a 3-point shot he had no business being anywhere near. Those little things don’t go unnoticed.

One thing I’ve really been impressed with is his defense, especially in pick and roll situations. Keep an eye on his positioning and anticipation. McConnell might not have the length Burke has, but he’s a nightmare on defense nonetheless.

-The freshmen have been as good as advertised. Koby Thomas was the biggest name of the recruiting class. Again, like Burke, I thought Thomas would be solid but not as good as he’s been.

Thomas is shooting 57 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3-point range. The thing I like about him is how active he is without the ball. I still think his shot has a long way to go, but he’s proven to be a good spot-up shooter. He moves well without the ball. There aren’t a lot of times he takes a shot that I don’t like.

Thomas’ bread and butter is around the rim where, according to Hoop-Math.com, he’s knocking down 64.3 percent of his shots. As a human highlight reel, some of those shots are easy, transition dunks or plays designed for an alley-oop. Other times, though, it’s just a kid who’s athletic enough to beat his defender off the dribble and skilled enough to finish in traffic. *If* I had to guess, I would think Thomas has the best plus/minus on the team. He’s an impact player on both ends of the floor.

There’s also Jon Williams and Leondre Washington. Washington has been hurt, which forced Williams to play 38 minutes against Drexel. 38 minutes! That speaks volumes to the trust head coach Andy Toole has in this kid.

(Williams has also single-handedly given my fantasy basketball team hope. I picked him up right before the stretch of six wins and seven games. My team still stinks, but thank you Jon.)

It’s been a fun ride. RMU opened the season 324th in KenPom’s rankings. They’re up to No. 240. This is a very, very good defensive team that’s starting to click on offense, and that’s without McConnell heating up from 3-point range. I have a feeling that it’s coming.

Only three games remain in nonconference play. The Colonials have some nice nonconference victories – Duquesne, Rider and Drexel stick out the most – but have a real chance to make a statement.

RMU (6-4) will travel to Buffalo (6-3) on Saturday, followed by a game at NC State on Dec. 19 and a home matchup against Canisius on Dec. 22.

Buffalo, a team RMU actually beat last season (definitely the program’s best nonconference win of the year) has been one of the top MAC programs of the past four years. Big man Nick Perkins will provide a nice inside test for the Colonials frontcourt.

Buffalo is similar in KenPom’s ranking to Grand Canyon and San Diego, two games Robert Morris lost by double digits. We’ll see just how far the Colonials have come. I believe a 1-2 finish to nonconference play is the most likely outcome, but nothing will really shock me. Even NC State (8-2), which has a solid win against Arizona, is a winnable game. RMU has a history of playing mid-level Power 5 schools tough prior to NEC play with close losses against Arkansas and Alabama in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

The NEC as a whole is really punching above its weight. In past years, some of the better teams in the conference have played a murders row of top Power 5 teams. Mount St. Mary’s, last year’s NEC champion, opened the year 1-11 with losses to West Virginia, Iowa State, Minnesota, Michigan and Arkansas.

We haven’t really seen anything like that this season, and I think it’s representing the NEC well.

Wagner, for example, is 7-1 on the year. They don’t have many great wins, but beating NJIT, a team projected to contend for an Atlantic Sun title, is solid. An inexperienced LIU squad defeating Stony Brook is another solid win.

Most of the conference returns to action on Saturday or Sunday. The seven schools playing Division I opponents are all projected to lose.

I think we’ll get a really good idea of what everyone is about. Central Connecticut State, under second-year head coach Donyell Marshall, is 5-5 this season. They went 6-23 last year. Boston College, a good-but-not-great ACC team, is up next. That’ll be a solid measuring stick game. If the Blue Devils can keep it interesting, maybe they join the conversation about competing for an NEC title.

The aforementioned 7-1 Wagner team will be tested against Rider, a team Robert Morris beat by three. Sacred Heart – a team I have a lot of faith in when it comes to NEC play – could bolster its resume with a road win at Binghamton.

For the most part, the NEC as a whole has won games where you just shrug your shoulders and say “Yeah, that makes sense.” They’re nice wins, but nothing really surprising. That’s still an upgrade from years past.

This weekend will be a chance to really see who is setting the bar.

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