No Need To Panic With Robert Morris Yet

There’s been plenty of discussion on the NEC’s defending regular season champions (for Colonials Corner go here, for SB Nation go here), so now it’s my turn to chime in on the state of Robert Morris basketball.

At 2-5, Robert Morris is off to its worst start since the 2004-05 season. The Colonials have given up 1.09 points per possession and opponents are shooting 53.6% from inside the arc. The Colonials’ KenPom ranking has dipped from 177 to 242 in fewer than three weeks. A befuddled Andy Toole seemed pretty upset after the team’s loss to Youngstown State, talking about how his players lacked passion, effort, and competitive fire.

I’m here to tell you everything is going to be OK. We’ve been here before with an Andy Toole coached team.

Last season, in fact, Robert Morris stumbled in their non-conference season to finish with an uninspiring 5-10 record. Players were leaving the team, some voluntarily and others involuntarily, leaving Toole and his coaching staff with just eight on scholarship. The defense was a mess. In what seemed to be a desperate attempt to adapt to their circumstances, the coaching staff implemented a 2-3 zone to help with foul management and a shorter rotation. And then the Colonials reeled off 14 of their next 16 games to secure the NEC regular season championship.

Two years ago, Robert Morris appeared to be on the verge of another breaking point. After winning eight of their 13 non-conference games, the Colonials proceeded to lay an egg in their first two NEC games at home to Bryant and Central Connecticut. What transpired was the most epic of rants (yes, even more epic than this past Tuesday evening) from Toole after the Central Connecticut game and, now famously, the chair drill.

Following that 0-2 start, the Colonials destroyed Fairleigh Dickinson (sadly that was the beginning of the end for Greg Vetrone) and Monmouth on their New Jersey road trip. They coasted to a 14-4 finish and (surprise surprise) another NEC regular season championship.

Of course, guys like Velton Jones and Karvel Anderson are no longer donning a Colonial uniform, but there’s reason for optimism in Moon Township, PA. While it appears to be ugly now, a deeper look may reveal that it’s foolish to count Robert Morris just yet.

A Star in the Making

Rodney Pryor looks like a star in the making for RMU. (Photo courtesy Robert Morris athletics)
Rodney Pryor looks like a star in the making for the Colonials. (Photo courtesy Robert Morris athletics)

Much of concern heading into this season revolved around replacing the prodcution from Anderson. Who on the roster, which included seven newcomers, would step up and serve as an efficient compliment to senior and all-conference team member Lucky Jones? Only seven games have past, but Rodney Pryor has already quelled any concern. He has an insane 141.7 offensive rating – thanks to excellent shooting percentages (63.8% EFG%) and a miniscule turnover rate (3.4%). Pryor’s silky smooth left-handed stroke has been money from behind the arc, as the transfer has drained 19-40 attempts there. He simply isn’t a one trick pony on offense, though. He’s also made more than half of his two-point attempts (13-25) and has shown the ability to get teammates involved when necessary (eight assists).

These shooting percentages may not be sustainable, especially when he becomes the focus of scouting reports, but given his athleticism and length at 6’5”, Pryor shouldn’t have issues getting his own shot against NEC foes.

(Now is a good time for me to express my excitement for Marcquise Reed as well. He’ll have ups and downs as a freshman, but I think the talent is there to succeed as soon as this season.)

Lucky Jones Will Figure Things Out

This goes without saying. Jones has struggled in the early going, shooting 31.8% in his first five games with 17 turnovers. He appeared to be pressing as Robert Morris’ main scoring threat, but recently Jones has been better. His 21 points – a season high – on 8-14 shooting versus Youngstown State is certainly a positive sign. He’s been a little jump shot happy, so he’ll need to trust his athleticism and skill to find any shot on the floor.

As a junior, Jones took 26.0% of his shots near the rim, according to HoopMath, yet only 13.8% of Jones’ shot attempts have come around the rim so far this season. He’ll need to be more aggressive moving forward, and I think he will. The depressing number of shots around the rim could have been due to terrific frontcourts of Georgetown and North Carolina, two opponents the Colonials have gotten out of the way. Given the pedigree and his prior ability to draw fouls, the senior forward should play well enough come NEC time to warrant an all-conference first team selection.

(This goes for much of the team, as 21% of the team’s shots are near the rim, as opposed to 34.8% last season.)

A Fully Rebuilding Conference

With LIU Brooklyn and Wagner fully engulfed in a rebuilding mode, the NEC is currently in a down cycle. According to Ken Pomeroy, the NEC ranks 29th among 32 conferences in Division I basketball, its lowest rating since the 2009-10 season. No team has a record above 0.500, nor has anyone been overly impressive in the month of November. From Mount St. Mary’s to Bryant to St. Francis Brooklyn to Saint Francis University, none of these “title contenders” have separated themselves from the rest of the pack. Everyone has issues.

Because of the uncertainty, Toole has plenty of time – five more non-conference games to be exact – to figure out his team and rotation. And I have confidence that he will. We simply can’t ignore his phenomenal career NEC regular season record of 53-17. They may not match their conference wins totals from the previous two seasons (14 each), but to believe the Colonials won’t hang around with the top of the conference come January is a tad premature.

The defense will get better. The offense should morph less into a jump shooting team. And the Colonials will be in the thick of the NEC race. As long as everyone stays healthy, I would be shocked if this wasn’t the case.

You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

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