FAIRFIELD, Conn. – Andy Toole didn’t look like a coach whose team was 9-20 Thursday night at the Pitt Center. And he certainly didn’t have the look of someone who was leading his team to their first losing record in more than a decade.
Toole and Robert Morris have a resume second to none in the NEC in the past few seasons. The Colonials have won 20 games in four straight seasons, posted a 65-23 conference record under their current coach, and won a postseason game (two NIT and one NCAA) contest in each of the last three campaigns.
But this season? Well, it’s been a mess to be fair. Defections, suspensions, injuries, they’ve all been there in varying degrees for most of the way and the end result was a 3-15 start and, perhaps more importantly, a 4-7 beginning to the NEC schedule that culminated in a home loss to KenPom No. 351, Central Connecticut, and the dismissal of Elijah Minnie.
Toole still has his babyface, but he does not look quite as youthful as when he was hired as the nation’s youngest head coach in 2010 (to be fair, I don’t look the same, either, sadly). Robert Morris was picked second in the preseason NEC coaches’ poll behind only Mount St. Mary’s, getting three first-place votes, but that was before things started to spin out of control.
“We’ve just tried to focus on getting better,” Toole said. “Obviously, it’s taken much longer than we would have liked to be able to understand the message. We’ve had some distractions on and off the floor. We haven’t competed the way I wanted us to compete all the time, but I just try to focus on controlling all that we can control as a coaching staff, and trying to get our guys to a point where they have a better understanding of what it takes to be successful at this level.”
One look at the stats tell just what the problem on the court is. Robert Morris is 332nd in offensive efficiency nationally and an abysmal 28.3% from three-point range (345th in nation, dead last in the NEC). The Colonials are also 298th in turnover rate (20.3%) and 280th in offensive rebounding (26.5%) and all that adds up to a mighty struggle, no matter who is playing or how hard you work.
“Sometimes, especially early in the year, we settled for way too many threes and we didn’t get the ball into the paint because we just haven’t shot it well,” Toole said. “We have a lot of guys who we still believe will be able to make shots at this level. Some of them are freshmen and maybe the speed of the game is a little too quick. We’ve tried to add shooting segments in practice, and that’s helped a little bit. I feel like if we had one or two guys that could hit threes, we’d be much harder to guard, but we don’t have that right now, unfortunately.”
— Ron Ratner (@NECHoopsRon) February 26, 2016
For a program and a coach that have had as much success as they had, it would be easy to press the reset button and just start to plan for 2016-17. In this revealing interview, Toole revealed to Chris Mueller just how tough it’s been this season for him and the team. To their credit, however, they haven’t thrown in the towel. After upending Sacred Heart 73-63 Thursday night, the Colonials (10-20, 8-9) have won five of seven, and although they will face a tough road to repeat as NEC champs (likely starting with an NEC quarterfinal game at regular-season champ Wagner), very few in the conference will write them off until they are officially eliminated.
“Not only are we trying to make the best we can out of this season, but we have a lot of guys that are going to be back and a lot of guys that have to learn and understand what’s important and what’s not,” Toole said. “That’s our responsibility as coaches that if we don’t want to have years like this in the future, guys have to lean what the deal is.”
The Colonials had only 7 offensive rebounds Thursday and still shot just 3-14 from beyond the arc, but got to the free throw line 35 times and turned it over just 10 times. Adjusting, adapting, tinkering. The record may not show it, but Toole is doing some fine work down the stretch, and (now in his sixth season at the helm) is showing – despite what the record says – why he is so well regarded both in and out of the NEC.
“I don’t know how the story is going to end,” Toole said. “But we’re going to keep working until they tell us we can’t anymore.”
What else did we learn at the Pitt Center Thursday?:
- Sacred Heart may not deal with zones well
The Pioneers (11-17, 10-7), who have been pretty hot, finished at just 0.84 points per possession, mostly because – like Robert Morris – they are not a very good outside shooting team, checking in at just 31.2% and going 4-20 on Thursday. There are other ways to attack a zone, but the Pioneers couldn’t figure it out against Robert Morris, with Tevin Falzon somehow going scoreless in 33 minutes (give a lot of credit to Billy Giles, who scored 16 points and clearly won that battle).. Sacred Heart can take solace that it shot so poorly (Quincy McKnight was 1-13 as well) and were still able to keep the game remotely close.
“They locked us up defensively, they were ultra-prepared defensively, and offensively they controlled tempo,” Sacred Heart coach Anthony Latina said. “We got outplayed on every level and probably got outcoached, too. And we can’t let that happen again. But we’ve been resilient, and I think we’ll be again.”
2) Rodney Pryor vs. Cane Broome
Broome (21 pts.) is still the likely NEC Player of the Year, but Pryor was the best player on the floor Thursday, scoring 36 points, grabbing 9 rebounds, and even getting 2 big blocks down the stretch. Pryor struggled early in the NEC campaign, mostly due to missing three games injured and coming back a bit slowly after that.
The good news for Pryor is that he’s healthy at the right time, now with 27, 24, 14, and 26 in his last four contests as the Colonials head toward the postseason. Robert Morris still doesn’t have much depth, but Pryor, Kavon Stewart, Giles, and Isaiah Still all looked like they could be a part of a tough out next week.
“There’s a lot of pressure on him at the top of the scouting report for everyone else,” Toole said. “We have to move him around a little bit to keep him from being too easy a target for the other team. If he could get hot here, that would really help us out.”
— Ron Ratner (@NECHoopsRon) February 26, 2016
3) Sacred Heart looks ahead
Saturday’s Senior Day game against St. Francis Univ. might be the biggest for Anthony Latina since he started three years ago. A victory would seal a home game Wednesday in the NEC quarterfinal, which would obviously help in the NEC Tournament, but also be a nice psychological mark for a program that has struggled of late regardless of what happens.
A loss, however, would almost certainly see the Pioneers on the road, which would leave a bad taste in the team’s mouth after such a good NEC season. Unless, of course, they just go and win the whole thing at that point, which the way this season has gone, who knows?
“We missed a big opportunity today,” Latina said. “They won the game more than we lost. I’m disappointed, but not discouraged, and we need that win Saturday to feel good about ourselves.”