What's Coming Back: The Bigs

Written by Craig Meyer on .

It might be hard for some to believe, but for a player to leave days after you combed through tons of data to see where his 3-pointers came from....that will cause a writer to become a little more cautious in evaluating a team. Anyone that follows college basketball even semi-closely knows that player transfers happen routinely, so it was probably a bit premature for me to examine Coron Williams' impact on next year's team before considering the fact that he might transfer.

With the Robert Morris roster intact after a delicate and prolonged game of musical chairs, we can all now evaluate this team with absolute certainty. Barring anything too unexpected, what the Colonials have on their roster now is what will take to their bench once November rolls around.

After an awkwardly-long break in the series, it's time to get back to looking at what kind of impact is returning to each position next year out in Moon Township.

Today, that discussion will turn to the low post and the team's primary returning big men -- Mike McFadden, Lijah Thompson and Stephan Hawkins. Obviously, the team has more than just those three guys to play down low, but I'll be doing separate posts on the freshmen and the junior college additions later in the summer. As it was with the shooters, it's hard to pigeonhole Lucky Jones given his diverse set of skills, so he may warrant his own post entirely.

The obvious and most noticeable loss from last season is Russell Johnson, who was a valuable contributor even if he didn't necessarily have the offensive makeup of a traditional big man. He was one of the team's leading scorers, vastly improved on the defensive end and was a strong rebounder. That's not easy to replace.

From stats and personal observation from last year, there are a few conclusions we can draw from this group.

Lijah Thompson is a question mark, but that's not a bad thing

(Photo: AP)

This isn't a comment that borders on trailblazing or insightful, but it's really tough to recover from ACL injuries. It's a long road to getting back to full health, let alone the ability to reach the production an athlete once had. That makes Lijah Thompson tough to project and while I'll use his 2012 stats as a framework in evaluating him, there's no guarantee whatsoever that he can get back to those numbers.

But being a question mark doesn't mean that Thompson is destined for a season of subpar stats. Different players respond to major injuries in different ways and for every player that wasn't able to regain their bounce, speed and athleticism, there are many others that use the rehab as an opportunity to spend countless hours in the gym, bulking up and improving their games. There's no stranger variable than a major injury.

If Thompson gets anywhere near his numbers as a junior in 2012, the Colonials are going to be getting a good player back. He rebounds reasonably well, particularly on the offensive end, he is a threat to score and he's an able shotblocker, something Robert Morris lacked almost entirely last season after Vaughn Morgan left the team.

For people that look at Thompson's 2012 stats as something of a baseline, the Colonials can expect to get a very big piece back this season. For someone like myself that was new to the beat and has yet to see him play, I'll wait for a few games to be played to make any sort of sweeping judgments.

It's not a strong group of rebounders

For each of the last two seasons, Robert Morris has been led in rebounds per game by....? Lucky Jones. On a more perimeter-oriented team, especially last year's 3-point-centric group, it's not unfounded that a stretch 3-4 leads the team in that category, especially since it's sometimes easy to forget that Jones is a long 6-foot-5. But when you look at the team's rebounding numbers, it becomes apparent that the Colonials' tallest players aren't particularly adept at using their size to pull down boards.

Of the big men that are returning next season, the best rebounder was McFadden at 3.5 rebounds per game. Maybe that's understandable given Hawkins' lack of playing time, but how about the more advanced (and, as I see it, more accurate) measure of defensive and offensive rebounding percentage -- that is, what percent of available rebounds did these guys grab? Let's take a look:

Defensive Rebounding % Offensive Rebounding %
Mike McFadden 10.6 6.7
Stephan Hawkins 13.6 9.7
Lijah Thompson* 12.0 13.5

* Numbers are from the 2011-12 season.

Last season, Johnson was tops on the team in defensive rebounding percentage at 22.2. While Hawkins led the way on the offensive glass, those numbers above are an indictment of a group that has fallen short in an integral facet of the game.

When looking around the Northeast Conference, few schools have as low of numbers in those categories as Robert Morris. Of the top seven teams from the NEC (excluding MAAC-bound Quinnipiac), only Bryant and Central Connecticut State had a player leading in DR% with lower numbers than RMU's. Using the same model for OR%, RMU was the lowest of those teams.

It's not a particularly assertive offensive group

More than anything, this might be the product of a team that has been largely reliant on guards for the last two seasons, but it also means that the Colonials enter next season with a relatively green group of post players on the offensive end.

Including Thompson's 2012 season, none of the three players was responsible for more than 19.4 percent of the team's shots, with neither Thompson nor McFadden surpassing 17 percent. This doesn't mean that we're talking about bad offensive players here, but they're also not guys who have been called upon too much in their careers to score.

In previous seasons, that was alright because of some of the pieces they had in the backcourt, but with many of those players gone, the team's guard situation is murkier than many thought when the season ended. That means more will be expected from the group down low, so it will be imperative for them to up their production with increased touches.

There's room for improvement

It's sometimes nice to end something with a dash of optimism -- an RMU version of Don Draper showing his kids the brothel where he grew up as another season of Mad Men draws to a close -- but I genuinely believe this group is one that can outperform what it has put on paper.

Thompson's upside has been touched upon already, but it's definitely there. McFadden was dogged much of last season with tendinitis in his knees, so an offseason to recover could turn out to be very beneficial. Hawkins was just a freshman last year, a very raw one at that, but developed very well, particularly on the offensive end where he progressed from a complete liability to someone that actually could make something of an impact. He should only continue to improve next season.

This position is a question mark and a potential source of concern for Robert Morris entering the season, but it doesn't mean it will stay that way. There's not potential for greatness here, but the pieces are in place for this to at least be a formidable unit, just as long as players can adequately recover and evolve.

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