Robert Morris surprised some folks (present company included) by jumping out to a 7-1 start in conference play. Even following a weekend that included a three-point and double overtime loss to push the team back to 7-3, the Colonials still sit one game up on the rest of the conference and have the opportunity to win tiebreakers.
The toughest task ahead of Robert Morris isn’t just Thursday’s home game against Bryant, nor Saturday’s contest versus Central Connecticut State, nor the final five games against the best the NEC has to offer.
Robert Morris’ next big test is the consistency that will be needed to pick up five more wins, which will likely be enough to win a regular season title and guarantee the Colonials a spot in postseason play.
If we’re being completely honest, the team that won seven of eight to open NEC play looked nothing like the team that didn’t beat a Division I opponent in December. Sure, there were close games against Canisius and Rider – and yes, RMU was excellent at Louisville for about 25 minutes – but there were real signs of worry too.
I outlined my concerns early in conference play (which you can read here). My worries stemmed from the perimeter defense, the streaky shooting from the guards and the body language from the team after getting punched in the mouth.
The Colonials have proven me wrong about all of those things for the majority of conference play. While the team’s defense has slipped of late, it’s still holding opponents to 96.4 points per 100 possessions, good for second in the conference. And the hiccup defensively has at least come with a bump offensively, where RMU is at 102.1 points per 100 possessions, good for fifth in the NEC.
Robert Morris has also shown some toughness. They gave up a big lead to Mount St. Mary’s back on Jan. 5, but came back to win on a Josh Williams floater. They won a rock fight in St. Francis Brooklyn. They swept an away trip through Rhode Island and Connecticut, then came back on a short week to beat Sacred Heart and Wagner. That is mental toughness.
Now what’s most intriguing isn’t just the next game that lies ahead, it’s how RMU will respond facing teams again.
RMU wins games with defense. Despite some inefficiencies, the Colonials do a really good job of communicating on the defensive end. The issues that plagued them in non-conference play, like pick and roll defense, have not reared their ugly head in NEC contests.
At least not yet.
Facing teams for a second time is a unique challenge. We already saw this against FDU. The first time around, the Colonials held Darnell Edge to five points on 2 of 12 shooting and the Knights as a team to 62 points (their third lowest output in conference play) and .86 points-per-possession. The second time around? Edge finished with 28 and FDU scored at 1.18 points-per-possession.
My fear is that teams, with film on RMU’s style, will exploit it. Last year’s team started out 4-0 in the NEC, got to 7-2 and finished 9-9.
To be clear: This year’s Robert Morris squad is more talented and more efficient than last year’s team. I don’t think the Colonials will fall apart like last season. The ability of Josh Williams, steadiness of Charles Bain, senior leadership from Matty McConnell and low-post presence of Malik Petteway are all things RMU did not have last season. Sure, there was Dachon Burke – and he was great – but last year’s team struggled to find an identity until the back end of the season. This year’s team plays slower, is more physical and is better on defense and still has one of the five best players in the conference (Petteway).
But it wouldn’t be unprecedented. This league is about parity. It’s repeated all the time because it’s true. Parity isn’t just about crowning a new champion every season. It’s about the wild swings we see in-season, the hot streaks and the upsets.
Robert Morris has an extremely winnable three game stretch coming up with Bryant, Central Connecticut State and Mount St. Mary’s. If this team wants to win the NEC, they need to win all three of these games. They cannot falter while St. Francis PA (winners of three in a row) and Fairleigh Dickinson (winners of five in a row), the preseason No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, start to get hot.
We’ve seen it before and already had a glimpse of it again: Playing teams for a second time is challenging. Consistency, consistency, consistency. That’s what it’s all about. RMU earned that 7-1 start, and with that, the breathing room they needed when some inevitable losses happened.
Now it’s time to get on another hot streak.