Last Saturday’s home loss to Central Connecticut State was painful but not quite unexpected, as has been the strangest norm in the Andy Toole era (which has been strange, to say the least).
The Colonials lost home games to CCSU in the 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2016 seasons, lost at CSSU in 2012 and needed an Aaron Tate tip in at the buzzer for a one-point victory at home in 2015. The 2015 and 2017 seasons were the only years RMU managed to sweep CCSU, a bizarre trend against a program that will need to reach the NEC finals to finish with its first .500-record since 2011.
Saturday’s 65-58 loss was concerning for more reasons that seeding purposes. It continued a recent current in which the Colonials failed to play solid basketball for a full 40 minutes. This time, it cost them against an inferior opponent. Robert Morris gave up 42 points in the final 20 minutes of basketball to an offense that ranks dead last in the conference’s offensive efficiency category.
“Our body language in the second half was telling,” Toole said following the game. “Sometimes you need to grind games out. It was tied with 14 minutes to go. Instead of looking at the game was scoreless, we just struggled to get our energy back.”
This has almost become the new norm for Robert Morris basketball in the 2017-18 season. In losses against St. Francis (Brooklyn) and Mount St. Mary’s, the Colonials were blown out of the water early with lackadaisical defense. By the time they got locked in, it was too late. Against CCSU, the team couldn’t seal the deal late.
If you asked me earlier in the season what RMU’s identity was, my answer would have been relatively simple: They excel with perimeter defense and forcing turnovers. Dachon Burke was obviously the offensive catalyst, but role players were stepping up by knocking down open looks. Now? RMU’s only identity is inconsistency… that goes on both ends.
Even if last year’s team wasn’t a juggernaut, they found a nice niche as a group that played hard on defense and worked well on offense with a small lineup that ran the floor.
This year’s team entered the season locked in. They upset some solid mid-major programs and while the offense wasn’t great, Burke was hot, Jon Williams was knocking down 40 percent of his 3s and Koby Thomas was doing a little of everything.
Robert Morris’ defense was also forcing an absurd amount of turnovers, which has continued (RMU currently ranks sixth in the country in defensive turnover percentage) but hasn’t necessarily swung games like it did early in the season.
Unless you’re a team like West Virginia – which operates a full-court press for the majority of a game – reliance on turnovers is a dangerous game to play. WVU is successful because a full-court press can lead to backcourt turnovers and easy buckets. Given RMU’s ability to force a turnover on nearly ¼ of their possessions, we haven’t seen a ton of chances to get out and score easy buckets.
This game is about buckets, after all. RMU is a good defensive team that at times can be great — but only at times. They’re not an elite defensive unit, and if you’re not elite, you have to put the ball in the basket at a better clip than what they’re doing (second-worst in NEC offensive efficiency).
Malik Petteway’s injury to RMU looms larger than people probably realize. He was a big-bodied forward who demanded attention when he had the ball with his back to the basket. He was the type of player who created more opportunities for guards on the 3-point line. Robert Morris’ offense would surely be better with him.
But you know what? Every team deals with injuries, small and large. Perhaps Petteway – who was spotted on the bench (in street clothing) for the first time in a long time on Saturday – plays a role moving forward. Even if he doesn’t, how much will it be? Will it fix the fact that Koby Thomas is shooting 17 percent from 3 in NEC play? Will it help with the team’s overall consistency on both ends?
Maybe it does, but it’s probably more likely that Petteway doesn’t play at all, or is on a significant minutes restriction. Robert Morris needs to find a quick fix; it doesn’t have to be pretty, but they do need to score near the league average in points per possession.
That’s what is important entering the final weekend of play. Forget the seeding — RMU will need two road wins against the league’s best and some help to grab a home game. Even then, they’ll still face a team of equal talent.
Home court would be nice — albeit it will very likely be in front of a thin crowd in a huge arena — but it won’t make a difference. The Colonials are doomed to be a one-and-done in the NEC tourney if they can’t find an offensive identity.