The eve of college basketball season is always full of hope and optimism. Every fan base can talk themselves into 20 wins.
For mid-major (and low-major) basketball fans, there’s a lot you can learn about your team without looking at wins and losses. In fact, that’s pretty much all you can do.
Robert Morris went a little lighter on its non-conference schedule compared to previous seasons. The Colonials will still face the likes of Louisville and Purdue (blue bloods), USC (solid Power 5) and Rider and Missouri State (very solid mid-majors) but also have some winnable games on schedule.
Which I like. A lot. I understand coaches want to test their teams and bring in money for the athletic department, but for a team like Robert Morris in the NEC, strength of schedule does not matter. They have to win the NEC Tournament. Scheduling some winnable games (Youngstown State, Mississippi Valley State, Stetson and Division II schools Mount Aloysius and Hood) can help the Colonials build on some positive momentum.
Which is in part why I’m more intrigued by Robert Morris than past teams.
RMU opens the 2018-19 campaign with a real chance to show their true colors and build momentum with a fluent roster.
Yes, Robert Morris lost last season’s leading scorer Dachon Burke (the… ninth straight season they lost their leading scorer? That can’t be right. We’ll fact check that.) but the Colonials return a large core one year removed from the NEC semifinals.
It’s become somewhat typical for Robert Morris fans to enter the season with a woe-is-me attitude – and that’s OK. There has been a lot of turnover the past few season. It does stink to lose your leading scorer and/or most talented, young players every season to transfer.
But this Robert Morris team has the opportunity to be different.
Losing Burke will have an impact, especially immediately. He developed into the team’s best scorer and isolation player. There are times where scheme can score points, and there are times when players just do it themselves. Losing Burke will effect the latter and won’t be easy to fill.
Robert Morris will look to Matty McConnell to control things. McConnell is just a winning player. He can play multiple positions, is a great rebounding guard and is the team’s best defender. The offensive potential has always been there – and has shown up in flashes – but has not been consistent enough to rely on. Is this the year McConnell’s offense finally takes a consistent turn? Perhaps so, but his track record suggests his 3-point shooting will be spotty.
I believe Malik Petteway showed enough to relieve some of the isolation pressure away from guards like McConnell. His health (and how he returns after missing months of basketball from an injury) will determine how a lot of this season goes.
Petteway’s low-post presence is important for Robert Morris, because there’s no other proven players who have shown they can work the low post.And when it gets to NEC play, rim-defending bigs will come in spurts. Can David Cole make a significant step forward? What will some of the new guys, like Yanis Mendy, bring to the table?
RMU’s season will come down to guard play, and the Colonials have some good ones. Jon Williams showed a lot of promise as a freshman point guard last season and was just as effective without the ball shooting spot-up 3s. His brother, Josh, now eligible after transferring from Akron, is an equally promising shooter and a guy Robert Morris fans should be very excited about. Koby Thomas, the NEC rookie of the year, is a bit of a tweener. He can do a little of it all.
Robert Morris should be stout defensively. Last season, the Colonials ranked 122 in the country in defensive efficiency (very good for a low-major program) and second in conference play. Defense will be this team’s bread and butter. They have the athletes and versatility to do it. Will it click? There’s no excuse for a guy like Charles Bain, for example, to not be a good defender. He is exactly the type of forward who should be a monster in NEC play. But will it happen? I wish I could tell the future, but I don’t know.
What I do know is RMU has not returned this much talent to a team in a long time. Natural steps of progression for Thomas and Jon Williams, now both sophomores, should help with the loss of Burke.
And the schedule will help, too. Robert Morris shouldn’t get beat down in non-conference play. They’ll have competitive, winnable games on schedule. Head coach Andy Toole should have a decent feel for this roster, and that will help.
The NEC is very top-heavy this season. St. Francis PA is loaded, Wagner is always going to be tough, Fairleigh Dickinson returns a good deal of talent and LIU-Brooklyn is the defending champions. This isn’t going to be a cake walk.
But you know what? Opponents look at Robert Morris with their returning core of McConnell, Williams and Thomas – plus a veteran head coach that does nothing but win – and think the same thing.