Robert Morris 78, Sacred Heart 67: Colonials Regroup Again

Marcquise Reed is more than holding his own against ACC level competition at Clemson, while Rodney Pryor has been one of the Big East’s best players at Georgetown, but if you expected Andy Toole and Robert Morris to feel sorry for themselves in 2016-17 without them, you probably should have known better.

We’ll never know how much a team with Reed and Pryor would dominate the NEC, but we do know that Robert Morris – as they seem to do every season – will not go away quietly, as the Colonials started NEC play with a 78-67 road win over Sacred Heart Thursday afternoon.

“I like this group,” Toole said. “I think we’ve improved a great deal from the start of the season, but we’re going to face so many challenges as we go through NEC play. I would hope we would have had more intensity to start the game today. That concerns me a little bit. But each and every game, we’re going to have to figure it out and figure it out together. Our guys really picked it up midway through the second half when we took the lead and they could feel some good things happening. We need to have that mentality from the tip, though.”

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The offense – like last season when Robert Morris finished below .500 in NEC play for the first time since 2002-03 under Mark Schmidt – is still a work in progress. Other than Isaiah Still (34), no player that plays regularly has more than 10 three-pointers 14 games into the campaign, which means they just don’t shoot many of them (309th). But the Colonials are just 340th nationally in two-point shooting (40.6%), and all that leads to some gruesome offensive numbers (330th in total efficiency).

In the hands of a less experienced coach, that might be a major problem, but Toole has just made his defense stronger. Thursday, Robert Morris (5-9) forced 20 turnovers (27.4%) and scored 28 points off them by recorded 16 steals. The Colonials are now sixth nationally in turning opponents over, led by senior Kavon Stewart and freshman Dachon Burke.

“We have to kind of pick and choose when we open it up,” Toole said. “We get wild at times. We have to be a defensive-minded team first. We’re not outscoring anybody. We’ve got to be able to stop people and then we’ll figure it out on the offensive side.”

With the game tight down the stretch Thursday, Robert Morris eventually broke Sacred Heart’s will with aggressive defense and getting into the lane to finish at the other end. The result was a passable 1.07 points per possession and a 1-0 start in the NEC.

Can the Colonials continue to do this to other opponents? We’ll have to find out, but Robert Morris (which was 4-9, but did so against the 66th toughest schedule in the nation) tends to get better as time goes on, not worse.

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What else did we learn at the Pitt Center in front of an announced crowd of 242?:

  1. Sacred Heart also has offensive problems

Joseph Lopez was immense with 23 points and 16 rebounds, but Robert Morris adjusted and did its best to both shut him off and stop Sacred Heart (5-9) from getting out on the break, which is how they held the lead for almost the entire first half. But once the Colonials went to a zone and kept Lopez and his teammates out of the lane, the Pioneers didn’t have an answer from the outside.

The Pioneers’ three-point rank (30.3%, 310th) matches their total offensive efficiency, and after Matej Buovac (who was 2-5), their two biggest threats from outside – Chris Robinson and Sean Hoehn – combined to play 24 minutes and go 0-2. Quincy McKnight (0-4 Thursday) is 9-38 on the season, and Cha Cha Tucker and his bizarre release point are just 5-24. The Pioneers played without Cole Walton (illness) and Mario Matasovic (injury), but they need someone to step up from outside.

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“This is a team that was shooting 37% coming in and we allowed them to shoot 50% in the second half,” Sacred Heart coach Anthony Latina said. “Even in the first 10 minutes of the second half, we set a bad tone with you score, we score. We can’t win that like that. We have to defend, and we did not. We have to do that and take care of the basketball, we can’t turn it over 20 times and expect to win.”

2) Isaiah Still needs help, but might be a MVP contender

Still does not necessarily come from the mold of a Pryor or Reed as someone who can score at will, but he just has to do what he did Thursday: score 22 points, grab 7 rebounds, hit open shots when the defense allows it, and make good decisions with the ball (he has an extremely low turnover rate).

The problem might become if defenses really set out to shut Still down, who can help release the offensive pressure? Thursday it was Stewart and Aaron Tate, but we’ll see if future opponents make it more difficult for them to get to the rim uncontested as well.

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“I think the zone helped, but we played with more intensity,” Toole said. “They were in a rhythm offensively, they get the ball down quick and they’re able to attack and finish, and that’s why they had that gaudy field goal percentage in the first half (51.6%) because they took 15 layups. In the second half, we did a little bit better with our transition defense, but we were much more intense and detailed defensively and that’s what we have to be.”

3) Non-conference means very little

As was previously alluded to, Robert Morris’ 4-9 mark is pretty useless, but in the NEC, they pretty much all are. One thing to keep an eye on, six of the 10 teams are in the 300s in offensive efficiency, so you might see some ugly basketball at times in the coming weeks. But it will still be fun as always.
“I’m disappointed because I felt like we were really ready to go out of the gate and to play well,” Latina said. “But I thought we wore down mentally, and that is disappointing. That was a winnable game and they just took it from us.”

Time for the next generation of Tooles to take the court for some practice.

A photo posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on

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Game and NEC season on from Fairfield! #TMMLegacy

A photo posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on

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