Coming into NEC play it looked like the Robert Morris Colonials were one of the teams to beat. Even without Karon Abraham, Andrew Toole had built a team that managed to take out La Salle, Duquesne and Ohio during non-conference play. Then NEC play started and things got a bit dicier, having just escaped Monmouth 81-73 in overtime, the Colonials sit at 6-2 in the conference with LIU Brooklyn and St. Francis (NY) coming to visit this week. Andrew Chiappazzi of ColonialsCorner.com offered his insight into RMU and what has happened this season.
1. How about a quick recap of the season thus far. What have been the highs and lows for RMU?
AC: Without question, the third straight win was a high point for Robert Morris, as was winning at Duquesne. The Dukes are the local rival, moreso than Pitt, and Robert Morris has struggled to beat them of late. But now the Colonials have two in a row against Duquesne. Robert Morris also has road wins wins over La Salle and James Madison to their credit. The low actually came last week. Though the Colonials suffered rough losses to Pitt and Memphis, those weren’t unexpected. The breakdowns that occurred in losses to Quinnipiac and Central Connecticut State hurt Robert Morris significantly.
2. Where do RMU’s defensive lapses come from? Are they predictable? It seems like they happen almost once per game.
AC: They’ve been very predictable of late, although the timing always changes. The lapses occur on the perimeter, which allows teams to hit open three-point shots. This past weekend against Monmouth, they failed to close out for about an eight minute stretch and were beat constantly on switches. Dion Nesmith and Jesse Steele buried six straight three-pointers and RMU was suddenly down by 15. They upped the intensity and focus the rest of the way and shut down the Hawks and came back to win. The same symptoms hit for stretches against Central Connecticut State and Quinnipiac, only Robert Morris couldn’t come back in those games. When they avoid the perimeter lapses, they can hang with anyone at the mid-major level.
3. Velton Jones is having a heck of a season. What are his strengths and weaknesses?
AC: Velton Jones has the strongest desire to win out of almost anyone who’s been at Robert Morris in recent years. The only recent comparable person was Tony Lee, and both have been called pitbulls by their coaches. Jones is at his best driving to the basket and making a play from there. He has excellent vision, so he can make a snap decision to kick out to an open trailer or player on the wing. He also finishes well and draws contact to go to the line, where he’s solid. He’s also worked on his outside shot, which has helped him become more of an overall scorer this year. Jones is a strong on the ball defender, but he’s prone to “losing his mind” at times, as Andy Toole has described it. When Jones plays a lot of minutes, he loses a bit off his initial step on defense. Against good perimeter shooters, that brief lag can hurt. Jones is also an emotional guy. On occasion, that can get the best of him, especially when neither he nor the team are playing well. But he’s a leader, and after time to compose himself, he regroups with a vengeance.
4. Andrew Toole seems to be picking up right where Mike Rice left off with this program. What’s the future like?
AC: Barring a complete collapse, Robert Morris appears to be on pace for another 20-win season. They only lose one player – Lawrence Bridges – to graduation, so they will be one of the favorites again next year. The plan all along was to turn this into a a regular mid-major contender. In the years prior, Robert Morris occasionally put together a good team, but it was never consistent. Since Rice and Toole arrived, the athletic department has a desire to be a consistent winner along the lines of a Belmont or Davidson, with the hope of elevating further beyond that. In the immediate future, though, this team has the talent to do significant damage in the next two years.
I’d typically ask for a game prediction as well, but considering where we are in the season. How do you think RMU finishes? What happens in the NEC?
AC: We’ll know quite a bit after the next two weeks. Robert Morris’ next three games are at home against 8-0 LIU Brooklyn, 6-2 St. Francis (NY), and then at 6-2 Wagner. Despite the loss to CCSU and their breakdowns defensively, I think Robert Morris is one of the top three teams in the league. Their defense is like no other, and if they can get Russell Johnson back healthy and inspired from his thumb injury in the next game or two, they have a good shot to win their third NEC title in four years. LIU is the favorite and off to the best start, but it’s extraordinarily tough to go undefeated in league play. They’ll come back to the pack, and I think it’ll be a 4-team dog fight between LIU, Wagner, CCSU and Robert Morris. I don’t think any of the other teams have enough to run with those four.
Thanks again to Andrew for all his answers. You can catch the RMU-LIU game on Thursday night on MSG Network. For more insights into RMU and the NEC in general follow Andrew on Twitter.