Robert Morris Heading Back to Its Defensive Roots

After a challenging 2015-16 season, Andy Toole is slowly but surely getting Robert Morris back to the brand of basketball the Colonials have been known for: a tough and disruptive defense that works to contest virtually every shot their opponents attempt.

It’s not often that an NEC team finds itself among the top 100 of Division I in defensive efficiency. The feat has been achieved just a handful of times over the past decade—Dan Hurley and Bashir Mason were the architects of three such Wagner squads from 2011-2013—yet, Robert Morris currently sits at 100th overall in defensive efficiency at 99.7 points allowed per 100 possessions. And that’s despite playing the 88th toughest schedule in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy.

The Colonials resurgent defensive effort has materialized thanks to an infusion of talent, and just as important, a renewed energy that may have been lacking in its consistency last season.

“We like the direction our defense is heading in,” Toole told NYC Buckets last week. “I like the fact that we’re competing pretty hard.”

Andy Toole’s defense has been mainly responsible for victories over Duquesne and Buffalo. (Photo Credit – Associated Press)

After successfully implementing an aggressive 2-3 zone defense three seasons ago because of an unforeseen shortening of the team’s bench, this season the Robert Morris coaching staff installed a version of the suffocating man-to-man defense that has defined the program all the way back to the Mike Rice days. The Colonials have forced a turnover on 23.5 percent of their opponent’s possessions, good for 16th nationally.

With more speed and athleticism on the perimeter and savvy defenders down low, the recent change in defensive philosophy certainly makes sense.

“We have some guys that can apply ball pressure,” Toole explained when asked why this roster is better suited to play man-to-man a majority of the time. “We have some more guys in and around the basket that are pretty good at defending the paint and obviously we have some more size than we did last year. I just think it’s a versatile group, some guys can guard some different positions.”

The man defense has also allowed the Colonials to better contest jumpers and to force opponents into the abyss that is the dreaded two-point jumper. Whereas a zone defense tends to force opponents to make perimeter shots, Robert Morris’s current scheme has been effective in reducing quality looks its opponents get away from the rim. The side-by-side comparison from last season is rather stark in that respect:

  • 2015-16 Opponents: 36.8% 2PT Jumpers, 33.5% 3PT, 35.9% 3PTA/FGA
  • 2016-17 Opponents: 31.1% 2PT Jumpers, 30.4% 3PT, 29.9% 3PTA/FGA

Depth has also helped with the current scheme —10 players are averaging at least 10 minutes per game— whereas last season Toole could only rely on seven or eight players in his rotation.

Now, Toole asks players to exert more energy in shorter time spurts. “I think the improved depth has been great,” he said. “Roberto Mantovani and Braden Burke being able to come in and obviously Aaron (Tate) being back, all those things are really positives for us for us to say, ‘Hey let’s buy into this idea of playing until exhaustion and then come out and getting a blow.'”

Running out a reliable second team helps, yet much of the team’s defensive success also can be attributed to two seniors who’ve been through the wars with Toole: Kavon Stewart and Aaron Tate.

The diminutive yet speedy Stewart boasts a steal rate of 3.9 percent, the 65th best rate nationally, while committing just 2.7 fouls per 40 minutes. His quickness, ability to apply ball pressure and cause chaos at the top of a 2-3 zone is a staple for what Toole and his staff are trying to accomplish defensively. Thus far this season, Robert Morris has allowed 9.5 points per 100 possessions less when he’s on the floor.

“In all honesty when we went back to man, Kavon was a guy who has all the physical capabilities to be a terrific defender,” Toole said of his longest tenured player on the roster. “To his credit this year he’s really bought in. He’s taken the challenge of guarding some of the better guards we’ve played so far and competing with them.”

For as disruptive as Stewart has been, Tate has been just as solid defending both the paint and the defensive glass. The redshirt senior has impressively grabbed 20.3 percent of his opponent’s misses and always finds himself in the right position on the floor, according to Toole.

“He’s a guy you don’t really have to concern yourself with,” he said of Tate, who’s played 67.1 percent of the team’s available minutes after missing last season due to several debilitating injuries. “His help has been incredible.”

In addition to the two wily veterans, freshmen Clive Allen and Dachon Burke and sophomores Matty McConnell and Isaiah Still have been instrumental in shoring up the perimeter defense. Allen and Burke, in particular, have combined to block 10 shots this season, an impressive total for a pair of rookie guards. Their athleticism and tenacity has allowed the rookies to contest plenty more of the opponent’s attempts.

All in all, Toole has the flexibility to be creative with his defensive rotations, and when needed, catch their opponents off guard by playing zone, as he did most recently against Buffalo. Having both options gives Toole something he didn’t have in previous years: the element of surprise.

With the exception of NEC defending champion Fairleigh Dickinson, no NEC squad has proven to be an offensive juggernaut, at least not yet. With weaker offenses on the horizon, the 2016-17 Colonials have a chance to be the best defense of the Andy Toole era. That is certainly saying a lot, considering RMU has finished in the top four defensively in conference play over the past five seasons.

Time will tell if the program’s newfound effort, tenacity and depth will guide Robert Morris back into the thick of the NEC title race. But so far, so good in Toole’s seventh season.

You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

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