This is the final NEC preview before the season starts today! You can find links to the first nine at the bottom of this post.
Head Coach: Andy Toole, 5th season (90-50)
Last Season: 22-14, 14-2 (NEC), Lost in NIT second round to Belmont, 82-71
NEC Preseason Poll: 3rd out of 10 teams
State of Program: Contender
Starters Returning: 2
Key Loss(es): Karvel Anderson (19.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 46.3% 3PT, 84.1% FT), Anthony Myers-Pate (6.9 ppg, 3.7 apg, 1.1 spg), Mike McFadden (7.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg), Jeremiah Worthem (8.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg)
Incoming Players: Lionel Gomis (PF), Marcquise Reed (G), Elijah Minnie (PF), Rodney Pryor (G), Jafar Kinsey (PG), Andre Frederick (PF)
Projected Starting Lineup:
PG: Kavon Stewart (4.9 ppg, 2.8 apg, 3.3% steal rate)
G: Rodney Pryor (transfer)
G: Lucky Jones (13.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.3 spg, 80.6% FT)
F: Lionel Gomis (transfer)
PF: Stephan Bennett* (4.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg)
*changed last name from Hawkins to Bennett in the summer
Key Reserves: Charles Oliver (G), David Appolon (G), Jafar Kinsley (PG), Marquise Reed (G), Aaron Tate (F), Andre Frederick (PF), Elijah Minnie (PF)
When a team loses three of their top four scorers, including the NEC Player of the Year, and must insert several new scholarship players into their roster, most pundits would consider that a true rebuild. Robert Morris, on the other hand, gets the benefit of the doubt due to its head coach, Andy Toole. 90 wins collected in just four seasons will allow for such leeway.
Take last season for example. Most people were ready to write off the Colonials for dead after a poor start during the non-conference season (5-10) and several defections to key members of Toole’s rotation midseason. Armed with just eight healthy scholarship bodies during the conference season, Toole and his staff reinvented their defense and wisely centered the offense around Karvel Anderson.
The rest was history as Robert Morris won 16 of 18 NEC games before getting upset at home to a red-hot Mount St. Mary’s club. As perfect as that Cinderella story would’ve been for college basketball, it simply wasn’t meant to be as the Colonials seemingly never had a chance in the NEC championship game.
Moving forward, Robert Morris must temper the loss of Anderson who had, quite frankly, one of the greatest seasons ever played by a NEC guard. For a shooting guard to take up 25% of his team’s possessions when on the floor and post an obscene 129 offensive rating, buoyed by a two and three-point field goal percentage of 56.3% and 46.3%, may not be replicated for a very long time.
In steps Lucky Jones, a player who’s been incredibly productive his entire career as a Colonial. This time, however, the senior will be asked to lead a Robert Morris offensive attack that has several newcomers, six to be exact. Jones has seen his scoring average increase by an average of 2.2 points/game each year, and it seems likely Jones will climb into the 16 to 17 ppg territory after averaging 13.9 ppg as Anderson’s wingman last season.
The second leading scorer behind Jones is, well, a work in progress. During this preseason, Toole highlighted a couple of newcomers who could provide the Colonials with some much needed firepower from the perimeter.
“Rodney Pryor and Marcquise Reed are two guys that have shown flashes of being able to get a good chunk of minutes,” Toole said.
The silky smooth Pryor led the Colonials with 20 points on just nine shots in their exhibition win versus Mansfield earlier this month. Even more impressive was Pryor’s impact off the ball as he collected eight rebounds and five steals to go along with those 20 points. Pryor’s emergence appears may very well relegate senior guard Charles Oliver to coming off the bench. Reed, a true freshman, has a terrific shooting touch like Pryor, something that should come in handy for a team that only returns two capable long-range scoring threats in Jones and Oliver.
Elsewhere on the roster, a junior college transfer may earn the start for tonight’s season opener vs. Lafayette.
“I think Lionel Gomis is a guy who has gotten in better condition,” Toole said. “He’s understanding more of what we need him to do and he’s doing a really nice job of coming along and affecting practice in a positive way whether it’s rebounding or loose balls.”
And then, of course, there’s sophomore Kavon Stewart. Without Velton Jones (who’s now on Toole’s coaching staff) and Anthony Myers-Pate to lean on, Toole must navigate this roster with an unproven, albeit high upside floor general in Stewart. In limited time as a rookie, Stewart displayed the skills necessary to become a very good point guard in this league – his 25.7% assist rate and 3.3% steal rate is proof of that. Now a year wiser, Stewart will be expected to take a significant leap forward, which most second year point guards in this conference are expected to do.
After that, the roster is littered with potential role players, whether it be Stephen Bennett (a useful anchor of Toole’s 2-3 zone last season), Aaron Tate (who’s unfortunately suspended from team activities for the time being), and the aforementioned Oliver.
Really, it’s anyone’s guess of who makes up Toole’s 9 to 10 man rotation. Whoever may emerge, though, it sounds like the Colonials defense will give their opponents several different looks throughout.
“I think it’s going to be a little bit of a balance,” Toole said when asked if he’ll go back to exclusively playing a 2-3 zone. “It can’t be all one or another. We’re going to have to try to keep (opponents) on their heels. I think last year people got more comfortable playing against our zone and we’re going to have some things (defensively) to keep them guessing a little bit.”
Is this a NEC championship contender? Time will surely tell, but Toole’s prior success has dictated that the Colonials will be a factor to return the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010.
Ryan – Truthfully, I have been flip-flopping back and forth on St. Francis Brooklyn and Robert Morris as my future NEC champion. If you took this roster and knew nothing about the coaching staff, you’d likely project them as the 4th or 5th best team in the NEC, right? Well, we do know the coaching staff and given the resume of Andy Toole, you just have to assume he’ll lead this green roster to a top 2 finish in a wide open conference. If Lucky is a star, Stewart improves significantly and a few others emerge as reliable options, then Toole and company may be finally be dancing in March. I’m predicting such a scenario. (17 wins, 12-6 NEC)
John – Before these previews started I made sure that my NEC records added up right! Which is why if you’ve been paying attention you already know that I’m picking Robert Morris second (at least in the regular season). What the NEC tournament may bring is anyone’s guess, but there are just enough questions after losing a great player like Karvel Anderson, that I’m wondering exactly what Andy Toole will do over the course of 18 games. Now, Toole may be a wizard and this may all be a moot point, and I still think RMU will be right near the top, but the Colonials will ultimately fall a game short of St. Francis Brooklyn. (16 wins, 11-7 NEC)