Digging into Robert Morris’ inconsistent guard play

By @C_Cappella

No, the sky is not falling following last weekend’s rough stretch. The Colonials entered the weekend 7-1 in conference play but lost by three to St. Francis PA and in double overtime at Fairleigh Dickinson.

The Colonials, after opening up a 14 point first half lead against St. Francis PA, faltered in the final 10 minutes of the first half and first 10 minutes of the second half, giving up 51 points in a 20-minute stretch. That’s the same amount they gave up to Wagner in the game prior and more points than St. Francis Brooklyn scored against RMU in an earlier game.

As I’ve screamed time and time again, this team needs to be elite defensively to win games. There is no other option. The Colonials weren’t bad defensively (1.13 points-per-possession) but weren’t good enough.

The same goes for the Fairleigh Dickinson contest. It wasn’t bad defense (1.18 points-per-possession), but it wasn’t good enough.

More interesting to me, though, wasn’t just the play of Robert Morris’ defense, but how opposing guards have stacked up against the Colonials.

St. Francis PA was the preseason No. 1 for a reason. Their heralded trio of Jamaal King, Isaiah Blackmon and Keith Braxton has potential to dominate the league. The Colonials made that group work for buckets at times, but they still finished with 64 of the team’s 76 points on 13 of 22 shooting from the field and 8 of 14 from 3.

Robert Morris’ guards, by comparison, did not have a strong game outside of the play of Matty McConnell. McConnell – who became the 25th member of the program’s 1,000 point club – scored a career-high 24 points on an incredibly efficient night from the floor.

But even McConnell went 1 of 4 from the free throw line in the final 1:16 in the game. After shooting nearly 80 percent from the stripe a year ago, the senior is connecting on a career-low 63.5 percent of chances from the free throw line.

McConnell is certainly not to blame for Thursday’s loss. His play was one of the only reasons RMU built a huge lead and why the team made a furious second-half comeback.

But again, look at St. Francis U. King, Blackmon and Braxton carried them. While Braxton technically plays the 4 in most cases, he’s only 6-foot-5. They essentially rely on their guard play to win games.

I’m not saying Robert Morris should adopt St. Francis’ style. That would obviously be madness, given the strength of Robert Morris is the play of the frontcourt. With that being said, the Colonials need more – in some cases, much more – from the play of their guards.

They got that in Saturday’s loss at FDU.

Josh Williams transferred in from Akron with high expectations – then raised them even more by draining 15 3-pointers in a game against Mount Aloysious. The senior (who will, by the way, have another year of eligibility with the Colonials next season) has been nothing but streaky since that point. After the St. Francis game, Williams was going through a 5 of 19 3-point stretch across three games. Before that, he was hot, knocking down 11 of 20 attempts.

Thursday was a particularly tough night for Williams. He did knock down 3 of 8 3-pointers but missed some good, open looks and committed five turnovers. Williams is not a shooting guard in the same sense of McConnell, who is a better rebounder than most guys half a foot taller. That’s OK, but it also means his 3-point shooting has to make an impact on the game so he can make an impact on the game. He’s taken 151 3-point attempts to just 78 2-point shots.

I wrote earlier in the season about his brother, Jon, and the regression he’s shown. Not much has changed from that point. Jon’s NEC 3-point percentage is down 20 points from his freshman season. In many ways, he reminds me of a younger Anthony Myers-Pate. Jon’s assist rate is fourth-best in the NEC, but the turnover numbers are still a little high.

Jon’s aggressiveness just isn’t where it needs to be – it’s a sentiment echoed by Jim Elias, the Colonials’ color commentator. Jon is a great free throw shooter and the team would benefit if he found a way to get to the line more. I’m not sure how much of it is the system and how much if a loss of confidence after a dip in shooting percentages, but the sophomore took 182 shot attempts last season and is only at 103 this year, according to KenPom.

The backup guards, freshmen Dante Treacy and Sayveon McEwen, are both intirguing. McEwen, especially, has shown a really nice ability to score off the bench. Treacy seems like a work in progress with his shooting ability.

The biggest downside to Treacy is his defense. He simply has not shown he can stay in front of opposing guards. That’s a tough task in this league, but a necessary one. McEwen leads the team in fouls committed per 40 minutes, but he can at least create his own shot, and finish. The freshman is up to 56.5 percent on 2-point field goal attempts. It’s a small sample, but there may be something there.

Some of that analysis might be interpreted as too harsh. Josh Williams, for example, had a monster night at FDU, going 7 of 15 from 3. Treacy was also in total control in the 17 minutes he played, scoring five points on two shots without committing a turnover. Even if Jon Williams still lacked aggression (three points on four shots in 34 minutes) he still dished out seven assists to only one turnover.

That type of play is what RMU needs – with two caveats: The Colonials only shot 18 free throws and were torched by opposing guard Darnell Edge.

It’s not all on the guard play to get to the line, just like it’s not all on that same group to slow down one guy (forwards Mike Holloway, Kaleb Bishop and Elyjah Williams all had strong, efficient days) but I do think it’s worth noting there has been a discrepancy of Robert Morris’ guards versus their opponents in the last two games.

We haven’t seen it all come together – that game where Josh Williams and McConnell are draining shots while the team does a good job with its perimeter defense. RMU is still leading the NEC. It’s not like the guard play has been bad, just inconsistent as a group. If some consistency can be found, less of the pressure will be on the likes of Malik Petteway and Charles Bain.

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