To me, “This is March” congers up images of Jon Rothstein spilling Dunkin’ Donuts on his new suit while simultaneously interviewing Sister Jean and thinking about a weekend at his in-laws. In March, anything can happen. You can get a new job. You can meet the love of your life. Maybe you’re a lifelong Loyola fan, and you watched your team make a run to the Final Four led by transfer from Fairleigh Dickinson. The spirit of March lives on, even in April.
If you’re a Robert Morris fan – or a follow any low-major school – this time of year has taken on a life of its own. March, and the ensuing months, represents the wild west that’s become transfer season.
As sister Jean would say: “Blessed are us, for it’s time for thy best player to take his talents elsewhere.”
The news that will garner the most attention is Dachon Burke leaving Robert Morris to pursue high-level options. While obviously important, it’s not the piece of information I’m most interested in.
Freshman guard Leondre Washington is leaving the program. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise. The writing was on the wall for Jelly Fam, who averaged 8.4 points and 2.1 assists in 23 minutes as a freshman. I detailed pretty extensively why I thought Washington’s fit with the program felt a little dicey back in January, but a mix of things led to the point where Washington was granted his release.
It dates back to mid-February, where Washington and head coach Andy Toole had a disagreement over playing time in a 65-58 loss against Central Connecticut State. From there, Washington sat out the remaining four games, which included two NEC Tournament matchups.
Omari Sankofa II of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette broke the news of Washington’s transfer last Wednesday with an interesting nugget.
It appears Washington was more than ready to come back to the program but was told by Toole & Co. his time with the program was finished.
It’s unfortunate so much of the conversation the past few years hasn’t been about basketball, but here we are again. Washington’s release from the program is a message. This is a power play by Toole.
We have written so much about culture. The culture of what Robert Morris was, the culture of what Robert Morris has become and the culture of transferring in college basketball. The man who hates the culture of players leaving more than anyone is now surrounded by it. Washington’s departure – looking from the outside in – feels like a strong message. Are you with us? Because if you aren’t we’ll pack your bags for you.
Washington will be a promising piece for another program and the redshirt year he’ll have to take should do him wonders. Adjusting to the college game is tough but adjusting as a high-volume, undersized guard is even tougher.
But taking a leave of absence from the team was his nail in the coffin. Forget the scholarships and forget any controversy surrounding payment of college athletes. When you sign that letter of intent to commit to a school, you’re signing up to be a student-athlete. There is no confusion about this arrangement. You don’t get to choose when you do and don’t want to play.
I want to bring up one last thing when it comes to all of the player transfers. Of course, this isn’t a new phenomenon, especially not for Robert Morris. The Colonials were crowned NEC champs in 2015 and it’s been a rough stretch (for RMU standards) since then.
We need to go back to that ‘14-‘15 season for further context. That team won a title and was – at some points – a complete mess. They held an hour(s)-long team meeting following an early February loss to LIU Brooklyn. Lucky Jones was suspended for conduct detrimental to the team. Marcquise Reed was a month away from leaving for the ACC. Things weren’t going too well.
Then they pulled it together. Reed did leave, Jones (and a few others) graduated but Elijah Minnie and Rodney Pryor stayed. That team ran it back because they won.
But what is funny – or funny in a way that kinda makes you want to cry – is what happened next. The cracks in the foundation that briefly showed in ’14-’15 completely burst. The ’15-’16 season was a disaster. The team stunk, then Minnie, one year removed from testing the transfer waters, actually pulled the trigger and headed to Eastern Michigan. Rodney Pryor left for Georgetown.
The ’14-’15 team won, so they ran it back. The ’15-’16 team lost. The culture was awful. The team stunk. They left. It’s not like transferring out of Robert Morris has been happening for decades. It’s happening now because the team hasn’t been so successful and it’s garnering more attention because of the quality of players.
That’s what this circles back around to. Culture is hard to build and can evaporate quickly. RMU’s culture right now is a mid-level NEC team that’s lost its top four players of recent memory to conferences of a higher caliber.
And now, when it comes to Washington, I think we’re seeing a return to positive culture. The dominating Robert Morris squads early in Toole’s tenure were tenacious, tough and committed. They’d run through a brick wall for a loose ball.
Now? Either you’re 1,000 percent in, or GTFO.