Thursday, February 11, 2016

What to watch for: RMU vs. St. Francis PA

Robert Morris and St. Francis PA will play the game of basketball in Moon Township this evening. We've got a 5 p.m. tip and the game, for us non-locals, can be watched on ESPNU.

These two teams met up just 12 days ago in Loretto, and the result was a 90-78 loss for the Colonials. In that game, SFU's Ben Millaud-Meunier had 29, Malik Harmon had 22, Ronnie Drinnon had 16 & 12 and the Red Flash shot 13-27 as a team from three.

This is probably the biggest game RMU has played to date. At 5-7 in conference, the Colonials are jockeying for position in the conference standings. Not to mention, it's always good to show out for a nationally televised audience against a rival.

Getting revenge

What a place to start! RMU and SFU have developed a nice little rivalry the past few years. Dating back to 2013-14, RMU holds a 4-2 advantage over the Red Flash. That includes an NEC tournament win two years ago.

However, St. Francis has always played RMU tough, and they look like a team with more talent this year.

At the end of the game a few weeks ago, the two teams apparently got into a pushing match while shaking hands at the end of games. It's not hard to see why. SFU, led by Millaud-Meunier, is a team that likes to chat and really gets rolling with confidence.

RMU needs to walk the walk, not just talk to talk. They have to play hard and tough for 40 minutes. There should be a good energy in the building to work off of. The best revenge is celebrating a win on national TV.

The three ball

St. Francis is a team that lives and dies by the three ball. About 30 percent of their total points scored comes from the three. By comparison, a team like LIU is closer to 25 percent. St. Francis, as a team, is also shooting 37.2 percent from three, 64th in the country.

When St.Francis does miss, they usually have forward Ronnie Drinnon their to clean it up. Drinnon is an uber-efficient offensive player and rebounding machine, fresh off a 23 points, 20 rebounds performance against central Connecticut State.

Robert Morris, sporting one of the least-efficient offenses in the entire country, is not a good three point shooting team. Their 28.6 percent mark as a team from downtown is 343rd in the country. Bad!

That doesn't mean there aren't some guys who can't find the touch. Rodney Pryor was a 40 percent three point shooter last year, a percentage that has dropped by a resounding 12 percent. Matty McConnell also has the looks of someone who can shoot it from three. He certainly likes to, now it's time to start connecting.

Off the mark

Speaking of Pryor's three-point shooting, RMU needs their talented senior to find "it" again. That's not just with the three point shooting, but every aspect of his game. After carrying the team in the early season, Pryor's been quiet since returning from a concussion a few weeks ago.

Perhaps he got back on track against Bryant, posting 14 points, 11 boards and one monster slam.

This is a real "prove it" game for the Colonials, and their best player needs to come out and play like it.

--Chris Cappella

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Wednesday podcast: Catching up

Myself and Lee finally caught up for a podcast, and wow did we have a lot to talk about.

In a two-part podcast, we talk everything from making a trip to the Mount, playing with toughness, the Elijah Minnie fiasco, RMU's past four games and looking ahead to the final stretch.

If you're interested in listening, click here.

--Chris Cappella

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Isaiah Still is on a tear

Guard Isaiah Still won his first NEC Freshman of the Week award after averaging 20.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists over a two game stretch

Still led the team with 19 points on 7-15 shooting in Thursday's loss to Central Connecticut State. He also grabbed a career-high seven rebounds in that game. On Saturday, Still had 22 points. Over his last four games, he's averaging 19 points and five boards on 49 percent shooting.

On the season, Still is averaging 9.4 points and 3.8 boards on 35.7/29.5/66.7 splits.

Nothing has been as encouraging as his improved play as the season has gone on. For whatever reason, something looked like it clicked in the Mount St. Mary's game a few weeks ago for Still. There was an aggression going to the rim we haven't seen from him all year.

That aggression has kept Robert Morris' offense afloat. An already terrible offense has really struggled with Rodney Pryor not looking like himself recently. Factor in Elijah Minnie no longer on the team, and that's really the bulk of RMU's scoring being non-existent. Someone HAD to step up, and Still was the one to answer the calling.

One thing that's been impressive during this stretch is his touch around the rim. He seems to have the ability to finish with either hand and is explosive enough to beat his defender off the dribble, giving him decent looks. Still has a pretty low percentage of shots at the rim that are assisted, meaning he's creating for himself. RMU could use a few more reliable guys like that.

There's also not a lot of middle ground for Still. Numbers show that only eight percent of his shots are mid-range jumpers, meaning he's either driving to the bucket or taking a three. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, depending on your view of advanced statistics in basketball and the "value" of a mid-range jumper, but simply having that shot can be a weapon to have for defenses who start catching on to tendencies.

The next step for Still is probably adding to the consistency. Yes, this has been a nice four-game stretch, but can it last? If RMU wants to be taken as "serious" contenders, they'll need him to keep doing what he's doing. He's a nice secondary scorer to have. His type of game could bring a lot to the table when it comes to getting high percentage looks and opening things up from the three-point line.

Overall, those are just picky things. The Colonials have one of the 15 least efficient offenses in the country, so any scoring is welcomed. If a few other guys can get going with Still, maybe the boys have an unexpected run in them.

--Chris Cappella

Friday, February 5, 2016

Elijah Minnie, player problems and forming a backbone

Robert Morris played a basketball game last night. Elijah Minnie and Kavon Stewart did not play in that game, due to a violation of team rules.

Stewart will play against Bryant on Saturday, per multiple reports.

Minnie will not. After the game, Toole told reporters he was no longer on the team.

Earlier today, Beaver County-Times reporter Lauren Kirschman had a fuller roundup of the whole ordeal, getting quotes from Minnie and Toole. The whole article was interesting, and I suggest reading it here, but this was a part that stuck out to me:

According to Minnie, Toole told him during the meeting that he “doesn’t think (he’s) a team player” and that he has “to be the center of attention.”
Minnie was hurt by Toole's words and said he didn’t want to be a part of the team anymore if that’s how the coach felt. He was disappointed, too, not only in Toole’s assessment, but also in himself. He admitted he had his fair share of regrets from his two seasons with Robert Morris and took some of the blame.
“I’d definitely work a little bit harder,” Minnie said. “According to him, I didn’t work hard enough. The respect level between me and the coaches, coach to player, was pretty much arguments constantly. I wish I could change that.
“There’s a little bit of immaturity on both ends between players and coaches, including myself. I wish things could change a lot. I hate that I have regrets, but that’s fair.”
As I'm sure he wanted, Minnie comes off pretty mature and accountable in his words. Perhaps if that accountability would have been put into actions, this wouldn't be happening.

Lost in the translation of Minnie leaving, or getting kicked off, depending who you believe, is Robert Morris lost an incredibly important game to a terrible Central Connecticut State team, 60-55. The Colonials were down by 23 at one point before a late rally couldn't be completed.

Toole had some harsh words for his team after.

Perhaps the only positive from that game was the continual improvement from freshman guards Isaiah Still and Matty McConnell. Still finished with a team-high 19 on 7-15 shooting, while grabbing seven boards and dishing out three assists. McConnell had 13 on 5-12 shooting with eight assists and five steals.

Forward Billy Giles had 13 on 6-11 shooting.

Get used to those three names over the next year, Colonials fans. Giles is a legitimately good finisher around the rim and is arguably the teams best rebounder. Still has been the team's best player of late. He's not hesitant to shoot when he's open, and he's been attacking the basket in an impressive and efficient manner. I like that he's not afraid to shoot the three, even if he's not a good three point shooter (yet).

McConnell is just a beast defensively -- an injured shoulder might be hindering him a little offensively, especially his willingness to drive, but it's there. He also has a great attitude. He had some words about the way he and Still, two freshman, approach games, per this article from Chris Mueller for DK Sports (paywall):

"We just, as the players that we are, we have a higher standard to the way we play then some other people on the team."
 This is encouraging and problematic at the same time.

On one hand, it's great to see there are still guys on the team who value, you know, still being on the team and the chance to play college basketball.

On the other hand: what is everyone else doing?  Is there any veteran leadership?

The ship isn't sinking anymore in Moon Township -- it sank. This isn't like last year, where talent was able to win out. At 4-7 in conference, Robert Morris is more likely to miss the NEC tournament than to win it. In fact, a loss to Bryant on Saturday would currently put RMU out of the NEC tournament.

Minnie's departure was a statement, but a troubling one. Some people will look at Toole and staff and commend them for having a core set of values, and sticking to them. It's Toole's way or the highway.

However, this is the ump-teenth player to leave Robert Morris is a four year stretch. Craig Meyer of the Post-Gazette believes Minnie is the 17th player in four years to leave the program. 17! It's been a host of different reasons. Four players were kicked out of school in 2014 for violation of university policy. Some guys quit; Stephan Bennett, Lionel Gomis, Chuck Oliver and Desjuan Newton are just a few that come to mind. Some guys are transfers who transfer without even playing (Jarius Lyles). Some are graduate transfers leaving the program (Coron Williams). Whatever the reason, 17 is too high of a number.

And that puts the program in the great conundrum. In some ways, these next few months could be the crossroads that define the program over the next few years.

Toole isn't going anywhere. He signed a contract extension in April that runs through the 2019-20 season. Since taking voer as head coach, the team has won no less than 18 games in a season.

That's not to say Toole, and the rest of the staff, doesn't have some soul searching to do. I think it's fair to say there's been some disconnect between himself and the players. Toole is obviously a tough coach who demands, and expects, the absolute best from his players. That expectation will never change, but perhaps the manner he goes about those demands could use some fine tuning.

Players have to look themselves in the mirror too. When you come to Robert Morris, you know what you're getting yourself into. There are expectations. This isn't high school. You can't act like a 14 year old anymore. if you're playing basketball at the Division I level and don't expect to be mentally and physically pushed, maybe D-I athletics aren't for you.

That's what RMU built this very program upon, first with Mike Rice and now with Toole. Velton Jones wasn't the most talented player I've ever seen, but he was the toughest competitor I've watched in my time covering RMU basketball. He wanted to win, he wanted, he wanted to play defense and he put his ego aside to do it.The same goes for guys like Karvel Anderson and Anthony Myers-Pate, and to an extent, the guys you don't hear as much about like David Appolon and Aaron Tate.

I'm sure the staff will look for that spark again. The foundation is still there, we heard it in McConnell's statement. He, and apparently a few others, do seem to have that backbone. They have toughness and will. They care.

Will others follow suit?

--Chris Cappella

Thursday, February 4, 2016

More struggles: Beyond the arc

Dr. James Naismith is credited for inventing the game of basketball in 1891. About five years later, the first college basketball game is played. In 1939, we have the NCAA tourney.

It wasn't until 1986 that NCAA universally adopted a three point line. If this year's Robert Morris team traveled time and played a pre-1986 game, things might be going a little better. Unfortunately, they're not, and their record is showing it.

This past weekend, Robert Morris lost at Mount St. Mary's by 21 and at St. Francis (PA) by 12. In those two games, the Colonials shot a combined 5 of 38 from three (13.1 percent) while their opponents went 22 of 46 (47.8 percent).

This really goes without saying, but the three ball just dammed the Colonials all weekend. Each time RMU needed a big shot to make a legitimate run at the game, they couldn't do it. There's no better example of this than the Robert Morris and Mount St. Mary's game last week.

The Colonials cut a 20 point deficit to 12 with 10 minutes remaining. After getting a stop, RMU could have really shifted the momentum of the game with a three, but instead threw the ball out of bounds and gave up a three to Will Miller on the ensuing possession. A chance to cut the game to single digits turned into another gut wrenching blow.

The St. Francis game was just a barrage of threes. St. Francis hit there's and Robert Morris wasn't able to got tit for tat. The Red Flash scores 1.2 points-per-possession, much higher than RMU's defensive average.

One disturbing trend Robert Morris has been unable to solve: letting good shooters get into rhythm. Last weekend was a perfect example of that. Ben Millaud-Meunier, shooting 40 percent from three on the year and 50 percent in conference play, hit his first two en route to an 8-15 shooting night from beyond the arc.

Mount St. Mary's Will Miller, perhaps the most pure shooter in the conference, went 4-7 from three against the Colonials.

This isn't some new trend. Hell, just off the top of my head, I remember Toole talking about this in the postgame against Oakland, after Max Hooper torched RMU on an 8-17 shooting night.

That's one of the more disturbing trends. RMU might not be a talented team, but there's no excuse for just being ignorant to the scouting report. Guys on the floor have to know who the shooters are and where they are.

As for the offensive struggles, it's tough to say things will turn around. Pryor hasn't gotten going from three yet, Minnie has had a hard time getting his shot off, McConnell is a freshman who does freshman things and everyone else... well... can't shoot all too well.

As a team, Robert Morris is shooting 29.3 percent from three, according to KenPom. That ranks them 336th in the country. RMU's offensive efficiency overall is 337th in the country. Think these things aren't correlated?

--Chris Cappella

Saturday, January 30, 2016

RMU needs big players for this big game

Thursday night, Robert Morris lost by 21 for a national TV audience at Mount St. Mary's. While the final score probably isn't indicative for the overall competitiveness of the game, a 20 point loss is still a 20 point loss.

There were some positives from that game. Billy Giles found his touch around the rim again, the Colonials ran some nice pick and roll, freshman Isaiah Still showed flashes of someone who is going to be a very good player in this league and Matty McConnell showed that aggression at the rim we've all been waiting for.

Obviously, there were a lot more negatives than positives. The Colonials shot a whopping 1-14 from three, with the only make coming from walk-on Anthony Pugh (#TeamPugh) as time was winding down. Robert Morris also lost the offensive rebounding margin 15-8 and committed 20 turnovers.

The most concerning thing was the performance of RMU's "big 3", the three guys the Colonials will be counting on most to create and deliver offense. Here's the combined stat sheet for Rodney Pryor, Kavon Stewart and Elijah Minnie:

-16 points on 3-17 shooting, 0-7 from three, nine rebounds, four assists and eight turnovers.

Today's game against St. Francis PA is a big one, for a lot of reasons. RMU is 4-5 in conference play. There are four other teams also at 4-5, jockeying for position in the conference standings. St. Francis PA is 5-4, so a win today would even things up. Also, a win keeps RMU within striking distance of Wagner and Fairleigh Dickinson, who both sit at 6-3.

Also, who doesn't want to beat St. Francis? They're like that annoying little cousin you're forced to hang out with on Christmas.

To get that win, RMU is really going to need Pryor, Minnie and Stewart to find another gear to their games. Minnie's game Thursday was especially confusing. For someone as big, athletic and skilled as he is, he looked... disinterested? I'm not sure, but it was weird. He took just three shots the whole game. He grabbed just one rebound.

Pryor still seems to be feeling the affects of his concussion. In his two games since returning, he's shot just 3-10 from the floor. He's getting to the line a lot, which is good, but RMU obviously needs more. He was an automatic 20 points before his injury, which is what the Colonials need. Hell, if that means taking 20 shots, I'm all for it. I hope we see a much more aggressive Pryor today.

And, like I've been saying for the better part of two years now, this team will go as Kavon Stewart goes. He needs to protect the ball and find his teammates for good looks, along with finishing a little himself.

Robert Morris has a dreadfully inefficient offense to begin with. Their 90.6 points-per-100-possessions ranks among the worst 15 offenses in the country. Without those three firing on all cylinders, RMU can't even be an average offense. St. Francis is not a good defensive team, ranking second-worst in the conference at defensive efficiency.

The classic immovable object versus unstoppable force.

This is a winnable game for the Colonials, but not without Pryor, Minnie and Stewart playing to their potential.

--Chris Cappella

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Preview: Robert Morris at Mount St. Mary's

Robert Morris (6-15, 4-4) at Mount St. Mary's (9-12, 6-2)
When: Thursday, January 28th at 7 p.m.
Where: Knott Arena, Emmitsburg, Maryland
KenPom: RMU 289, MSM 223
KenPom Line: Mount -7
Link/TV: CBS Sports Network
Storyline: Robert Morris looks to go three for three on their current four game road swing. This will be the most difficult game on the trip, as they take on the current leader of the NEC.

Getting to know the Mountaineers: Mount St. Mary's and Robert Morris have a long history, usually full of rare heartbreak for Colonials fans. Robert Morris could really regain their mojo with a road win for a nationally televised audience.

Of course, that won't be easy. The Mount is 6-2 in conference, with one of their losses coming in double overtime versus Bryant and the other by just five points at Sacred Heart. Not to mention, these two teams met just two weeks ago, and the end result was ugly. More on that later.

When it comes to overall talent level, it's hard to argue that any team has more than the Mount. Shooting guard B.K. Ashe has been good this year, averaging a team-high 14.2 points. He's certainly in the running for conference player of the year.

His backcourt running mate is Junior Robinson, all 5-foot-9 of him. Even as one of the smallest players in Division I hoops, Robinson is a problem; he's incredibly quick, can shoot well from downtown and has superb vision. Watching him and Kavon Stewart go at it all night is going to be fun.

Some other household names: Will Miller is a 6-foot-11 stretch four who will knock down everything from three if he gets going.... Freshman point guard Elijah Long is a smart point guard who knows how to move without the ball... Taylor Danaher is 7-foot... Power forward Greg Graves has been a little disappointing this season but is still one of the 10 most talented players in the conference...

Last time out: These two teams met exactly two weeks ago at Robert Morris. The result wasn't good. Mount St. Mary's took a 43-13 halftime lead en route to winning 76-52. A few things about that game:

-Rather unexpectedly, Robert Morris was without Rodney Pryor and Andre Frederick. That can mess with a team mentally.

-Mount St. Mary's is a really good defensive team, and they did their part taking someone like Elijah Minnie out of the game. Minnie had four points on 1-8 shooting. Mount's length gives a lot of teams problems.

-Mount shot 7-17 from three as a team. Will Miller went 4-8. Robert Morris simply can't let him get good looks tonight. They have to close out hard on defense.

Making the case for Robert Morris: RMU is playing their best ball of the year since that loss, winning three in a row. The colonials should also have Pryor back. Even after a quiet game last Saturday, he brings a component to the team that no one else can replicate.

For some reason, I also think Andre Frederick could give some valuable minutes tonight. The colonials need his size to match up with the likes of Danaher, who grabbed eight boards in 18 minutes in their last meeting. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the way Conrad Stephens is playing, but no one has the size Frederick does. Maybe seeing a walk-on play the way he did will inspire something productive out of Frederick.

RMU got the doors blown off of them in the last meeting, but they still did a lot well. They forced 16 turnovers, blocked 6 shots and got to the line 28 times. Hell, they even outscored Mount St. Mary's in the second half. Their biggest problem came on the boards (MSM had 13 offensive rebounds to RMU's 3) and... shooting. Pryor might be able to correct those problems.

Finally, there's the defense. RMU leads the NEC in defensive efficiency, giving up 91.2 points-per-100-possessions. The offense has been dreadful, but this defense should keep them in things.