At Robert Morris, a cautionary tale and a chance to buck a trend

By @C_Cappella

It is amazing that in a league dominated by parity, this Robert Morris team is the one with a three-game lead over second-place St. Francis Brooklyn.

The NEC has not had a repeat conference champion since LIU in 2012-2013. The Blackbirds, who handed Robert Morris its lone loss in conference play, are one of six teams that sit 4-4 through four weeks of conference play. That is parity. SIX teams tied for third place, with Mount St. Mary’s and CCSU sitting on the outside looking in at 2-6.

Mount St. Mary’s two wins, by the way? Against the defending champs, LIU, and at Wagner, a team that at one point looked like the class of the league. Despite having one of the youngest teams in the country, you can’t take a game off against Mount St. Mary’s. You can’t take a game off against anyone in this league, really.

Need another sign of parity? Home teams have won just 22 of 40 games in NEC play. That win percentage ranks 25th out of 32 conferences. When it comes to Robert Morris’ current four-game winning streak, perhaps we should be applauding them for winning two tough home games as opposed to snagging both games in last week’s road trip.

The Colonials have made a habit of winning rock fights. Saturday’s 57-51 victory against Wagner featured both teams score at a clip well below 1.0 point-per-possession. The Colonials shot 3 of 20 from 3-point range and turned the ball over 14 times.

That’s not typically a winning formula – until this year. Last season, the Colonials won one game while scoring under 1.0 point-per-possession (.99 points against St. Francis Brooklyn). The year before, they did it just twice. It;s already happened four times this season (vs. Wagner, FDU, Mount St. Mary’s; at St. Francis Brooklyn).

And there’s still a second half of conference play to go.

Robert Morris winning an NEC title with this offense would be unprecedented. We like to believe that defense wins championships – which is true to an extent – but it’s usually the team’s with the best offenses that not only take home regular-season crowns, but also go on to win the NEC Tournament.

Dating back to 2002, as far back as KenPom’s data goes, here are the least efficient offenses to represent the NEC in the NCAA Tournament. All numbers are reflective of conference play only:

  • Monmouth (2004): 1.01 points-per-possession
  • Monmouth (2006): 1.01 points-per-possession
  • Mount St. Mary’s (2008): 1.03 points-per-possession
  • Robert Morris (2010): 1.03 points-per-possession

Right now, RMU is scoring at a clip of 99.4 points-per-100-possessions.

The impact of offense is even more apparent if you look at the regular season champions since 2002. In the past 17 years, only three teams have won a regular season crown without finishing top three in offensive efficiency. Two of them are the Monmouth teams listed above, who, ahem, doesn’t play in the NEC anymore. The other is the 2017 Mount St. Mary’s squad, who ranked fourth. That’s it!

Robert Morris, a team that currently ranks eighth in offensive efficiency, has a three-game lead halfway through NEC play. That’s not just rare, it’s absurd.

Defense, of course, is still crucial. Again, if we ran back the list of NEC regular season champions since 2002, seven of the 17 teams led the NEC in defensive efficiency and all but four ranked in the top three. Often there’s a correlation between the top offenses and top defenses. The best teams don’t rely on one side of the ball to win games. The 2002 CCSU team – one of the most dominant in the history of the conference – led the NEC in offensive and defensive efficiency. The best teams are good on both sides of the ball.

The point I’m trying to drive across is that Robert Morris is not good on both sides of the ball. They have one of the least efficient offenses in the country. It is incredible they find themselves where they do today.

Which leads to my next point: It’s not time to hang banners just yet. Last year’s team opened conference play in 7-2. They finished 9-9 and had to play on the road in the first round of the NEC Tournament.

In some respects, RMU’s offensive woes might work to its advantage. This team must bring it defensively every single possession. They simply cannot win if they’re not sharp on defense. The offense isn’t good enough. On display this past weekend was a consistent defensive focus and intensity across 40 minutes that I haven’t seen in a very long time. It was damn impressive, to say the least.

But just like last season, things can slip pretty easily. It’s not cliché to say that every team can win and lose to every other team, despite the difference in records. It’s true. We’ve seen it already. If you told me at this time last year that RMU would have to go on the road to open the NEC tournament, I wouldn’t have believed you. Given the skill of an all-NEC guy like Dachon Burke, the talent of Matty McConnell and the Rookie of the Year in Koby Thomas, things only looked bright.

Let that be a cautionary tale moving forward. It takes just one quick loss of focus for things to spiral downhill.


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