(Photo: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)
When you cover a team and are around it on a frequent basis throughout the season, you're often consumed by it, from every small stat to the tiniest bit of minutiae. That's the case for most any writer covering most any team, but when you deal with mid-major basketball at a smaller school, it's even greater.
For me, one gauge of a topic's importance is how often you're asked by an outsider about a certain thing pertaining to that beat. In my 15-or-so months covering Robert Morris, the two things I've been asked about the most have overwhelmingly been 1) the Kentucky game and 2) the Mike Rice saga. In recent weeks, a third one has popped up -- the Colonials playing with eight guys.
It's a topic that's been talked about a lot (so much so that I've been told to curb the the number of references to it in my articles), but with Robert Morris 10 games into this forced experiment, I figured it would be worth revisiting it, especially since the team is 9-1 in that span.
When it comes to such an undermanned team, the main area of concentration has to be game time. After all, fewer bodies equal more playing time which equals tired legs and possible struggles. Here are the minutes-per-game numbers for the team's eight players in that 10-game period:
|Player||Minutes per game|
In all, that's a pretty solid chunk of game time for each player, an obvious burden that comes with the team's current situation. When I first calculated these, the thing that immediately stood out to me was that seven players were playing more than 20 minutes per game, which on its own seems pretty absurd. Surely, I thought, only a handful of other NCAA teams could have distinction.
But I was wrong. In a big way. There are 53 teams in Division I that have at least seven players averaging at least 20 minutes per game for the season, and not just a 10-game span. Here's that list:
|Central Connecticut State||9-18|
|Florida Gulf Coast||19-10|
|North Carolina State||17-10|
|St. Francis (Pa.)||9-18|
|William & Mary||17-10|
* Team has eight players who play 20 minutes or more per game.
A quick note on this: it's obviously not an apples-to-apples comparison since I'm judging a whole season for these teams based on 10 games for RMU, but to figure out the minutes splits in 10 games for all 351 DI teams would have taken just a little too long for my liking. I'd also probably argue that doing this for an entire season is a little more impressive.
So what immediately stands out about this group? The first is the variety, which should probably be expected. You have traditional powers like UCLA, you have the nation's top-ranked team in Florida, a slew of smaller-conference schools and even a for-profit university in Grand Canyon. Three of the schools -- St. Francis (Pa.), Wagner and CCSU -- are fellow NEC schools, meaning damn-near half the conference is part of this trend.
It also shows that teams rely heavily on eight players for different reasons. For teams like Florida, it's something of a luxury -- they have so much depth and so many talented players that it simply doesn't make sense to not spread the minutes around like that. For others, it's done either out of necessity (like at RMU) or because there simply aren't that many great players beyond those first seven and the coach prefers to keep the rotation tight.
The other thing that caught my eye was how successful some of these teams are, as 28 of the 53 teams have at least a .500 record. And this leads me to believe that in some respects, the Colonials' recent run isn't all that unique.
A big reason why this is becoming such a large story is that the team, through it all, is thriving and bucking conventional wisdom. If Robert Morris weren't experiencing the success that it has been, it would be in a similar spot as Hofstra. Amid defections, arrests and a number of other things, the Pride have only nine athletes who have played in 2013-14, something that's been done over the course of an entire season and not 10 games. But there's an easy-to-guess caveat -- at 8-21 Hofstra isn't very good. They're what many would expect a nine-player team to be. Robert Morris, on the other hand, is an exception to that rule and is therefore good fodder for an interesting story.
But the fascinating part of this run isn't entirely based around statistics. Do 15 percent of Division I teams do something similar to what the Colonials are now? Yes. Are half of those teams just as, if not more, successful? Sure. But what makes Robert Morris' story more gripping is that it has to do this. Many of these other programs give big minutes to a handful of guys, but if something were to go wrong, they would have options to turn to, undesirable as they may be. The Colonials don't have that and the image of three guys on a bench, outnumbered by student managers, assistant coaches and Gatorade tubs is simply too powerful of one to ignore.
Are they the best story in college basketball? Perhaps, but that can be a road littered with a number of weird variables and #hotsportstakes, so I try to avoid it. After all, there are so many great stories in the game right now, that it's almost impossible to prioritize one over the other. Wichita State is a win away from completing an undefeated regular season. Kansas, led by duo of freshman phenoms, just won the Big 12 for a 10th-consecutive season. Doug McDermott is putting together one of the best offensive seasons in college basketball history.
What I do know is that, for now, what Robert Morris is doing is not totally unique and the numbers prove as much. But given some proper context and considering all that has gone on, it is a compelling story that will only get that much more interesting the further the Colonials go.