Can Robert Morris contend for the NEC title?

By @C_Cappella

Robert Morris is undefeated in the NEC after the first weekend, no doubt a step in the right direction.

There’s still plenty of work to do.

It’s a delicate balance; of course it’s better to win and lose, but there should be an acknowledgment that the Colonials have a lot of work to do even after a 62-59 nail biter last Saturday against Mount St. Mary’s.

The harsh reality is Robert Morris’ best non-conference victory was against Youngstown State, a team that’s 5-12 and 1-3 in the Horizon League. The Colonials found ways to lose – like in contests at Canisius and versus Siena – winnable games against solid opponents.

Saturday’s victory against Mount St. Mary’s really sums up all of my worries for this team. The Mountaineers – after undergoing a coaching change and losing one of the best players in program history – are literally the second-youngest team in college basketball. The young guys have talent, but it will take a few years to build the program up again.

RMU led 30-19 at half. That’s a game they have to put away in the first five minutes of the second half. Take control, give your opponent no hope and walk away with a solid W.

Instead, Mount St. Mary’s came out on fire, out-scoring the Colonials by seven points in the first 10 minutes of the second half and even taking a lead late in the contest. It took a Josh Williams floater over two defenders in the final 13 seconds to seal a Colonials victory.

Do not get me wrong – a win is a win. Nothing can be taken for granted in conference play, especially against Mount St. Mary’s, but that is not a particularly strong team. RMU’s consistency is maddening. It’s not just on a game-by-game basis, but a half-by-half and minute-by-minute basis.

Now, to give credit where credit is due: Last Thursday’s NEC-opening victory against Fairleigh Dickinson was impressive. The Knights were the preseason No. 2 in the coaches poll and have largely lived up to the hype, blowing out St. Francis PA last Saturday, 79-61.

We’ll learn a lot more about Robert Morris in the upcoming weekend of conference play, when the Colonials hit the road. Thursday’s matchup is at St. Francis Brooklyn, followed by a Saturday contest against the defending champs, LIU-Brooklyn.

Like most teams in the NEC, both Brooklyn squads are 1-1 in NEC play but dangerous. I think this St. Francis Brooklyn squad is very sneaky good. The Terriers thrive on protecting the ball and playing a slow game. They also have talented, quick guards, which has been a problem for Robert Morris’ perimeter defense.

Malik Petteway fouled out of Saturday’s victory against the Mount, while big man Charles Bain played the remaining minutes with four fouls. This is not an indictment of their individual defense, rather how RMU’s perimeter defense allowed so much penetration, putting pressure on the big men. Robert Morris’ defense is ranked 140th in the country in efficiency (good) and first in NEC play. Not to beat a dead horse, but I will say this again: The Colonials need a dominant defense to win this league. Good will not cut it. I am skeptical that this is a dominant defense. Outside of Matty McConnell, there is not a very good defender on this team. Jon Williams has stretches, and the interior defense is solid, but too often there seems to be stretches of awful communication leading to open looks.

I am having a hard time getting a pulse on this team. I like the pieces – McConnell is a great leader for this team and executes the details that you would want. Josh Williams is a very capable scorer when he gets going, Petteway is a dominant NEC big man and the new forwards, Yannis Mendy and Cameron Wilbon, are solid role players capable of doing more during stretches.

But are the pieces enough? RMU feels like a mesh of win-now players with talent not quite ready to win now. Jon Williams’ regression is concerning – and maybe something he turns around in NEC play – but still concerning. This team can just make some boneheaded mistakes and has not played a great 40 minutes of basketball against any Division I opponent.

Basketball is a team sport, but it definitely doesn’t hurt to have “a guy”. So far, Josh Williams has been asked to make game-winning plays down the stretch. Again, I like what Josh can bring to the table, but he’s often being asked to thrive in the game’s closest moments in a spot that isn’t his strong suit: Going to the basket and finishing in traffic. Thankfully, he did his part against Mount St. Mary’s. Despite a tough shooting night, he hit a spectacular floater in the final seconds. That take serious mental toughness and could be a launching pad for him in NEC play.

And if not? I’m not sure what to think.

It’s possible Robert Morris is just as flawed as every NEC team. That might be the slightest crack in the door Andy Toole and Co. need to make a run.

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