A 6-0 start in NEC play has undoubtedly been impressive for Robert Morris, but as many of you know, the storyline revolves around how it has achieved that record. For the past two games, following the indefinite suspensions of four players, the Colonials have played with just eight players. They've also happened to win those two games.
As long as this the roster situation, which appears to be the case for the foreseeable future, the team will be viewed through this lens -- that is, as the resilient squad that is somehow winning games with just three players on the bench.
But just how unique and bizarre is this?
Before Saturday's win against Wagner, I was talking with SB Nation's Stephen Gertz about how distinct this eight-man rotation really was. Off the top of our respective heads, we didn't think it could have been all that different than how the team had done things this season. Obviously, the Robert Morris roster had 14 players on it when the season began, but for the most part, we thought it generally didn't give significant minutes to more than eight or nine players per game.
Based on that conversation, and with the Colonials still thriving despite their lack of numbers, I decided to delve into this issue a little bit more. I took a look at each of their games this season to see how many players entered the game and wanted to figure out what that could tell us about the team's current situation.
For the most relevant number possible, I did not include players who saw less than five minutes of court time as a member of the team's rotation, especially since RMU has been involved in a few blowouts this season. Here's what I found:
|Game||# of players in rotation|
|Saint Francis (PA)||10|
* Game was played without Mike McFadden, who missed it because of injury.
As the table shows, Robert Morris used a 10-man rotation in 12 of its first 18 games this season, it has never had more than 11 players in its rotation and up until the past two games, it never had smaller than a nine-man rotation.
Though teams used bigger and smaller ones, a 10-man rotation almost feels like standard operating procedure, solely because it allows each player that starts to effectively have a back-up. That average number from the table is effectively two more than what Robert Morris has been using the past few games.
Two players may not seem like all that much -- and in reality it's not anything that's particularly debilitating -- but it effectively means that Robert Morris lost 20 percent of its team. When you look at who was lost between the suspensions and the absences, there is a promising and productive freshman forward (Jeremiah Worthem), the team's starting center (Mike McFadden) and someone who, while he was playing, was a useful piece off the bench (Desjuan Newton).
It's one thing to see rotation numbers, but what product of those changes is increased minutes for the remaining players. Here's are the minutes per game numbers for the eight remaining players both before and after Newton and McFadden left the team (for the time being):
* A quick note on Appolon: since the eight-man rotation came into being, he's averaged 16.5 minutes per game the past two games, so his number in the table doesn't entirely reflect the increase in minutes he will see.
Even with the roster turnover, there's not a huge difference for guys like Anderson and Jones, the team's top two offensive players who were already playing around 30 minutes per game. If you talk to them, they say as much. Basically, and I'm paraphrasing here, "I was already getting a lot of minutes -- what are a few more?"
Where the impact is felt is further down the bench, namely for the guys who have a minutes per game difference of more than five in the above table -- Oliver, Stewart, Hawkins and Tate (it'd even be fair to include Appolon, too).
To me, this is where the season is going to be won or lost for Robert Morris. As much as guys like Anderson and Jones are used to the high number of minutes, these players are not and how they adjust to that change will be paramount. So far, the results are obviously promising -- a 2-0 record, with one of those wins coming against one of the top teams in the NEC (Wagner).
But can it continue? If you're looking for some kind of recent precedent on this matter, you don't have to look further than Bryant, the Colonials' opponent tonight.
Last season, the Bulldogs had only seven players who averaged more than six minutes per game and for a while, that worked perfectly fine. They started the season 16-6, a run which included a 9-2 mark in NEC play. But from there, they lost six of their next nine and didn't make it past the first round of the conference tournament.
Was that fall-off because of the team's lack of depth catching up to it? Possibly, but I didn't cover the team and wasn't close enough to the situation to really know if that was the case. But for a team like Robert Morris, that example can serve as something of a cautionary tale.
With only eight players for what looks like will be the remainder of the season, there are two things to keep in mind with this team and the way it's coached.
One is that Andy Toole is very conscientious of his players minutes and how to divvy them up. He has one of his assistant coaches keep tabs on it throughout the game and if you watch him on the sideline, he regularly checks with him about it.
The second is perhaps more critical -- and that is conditioning, which -- as far as I see it -- will not be an issue. The physical endurance of players is so essential when there are only three guys to turn to on the bench and I think the Colonials have that. Perhaps this is because I get to see them on a regular basis, but Toole's practices are tough. I mean really tough, especially when it comes to getting his players in shape. Even before practices officially begin, much of the offseason is spent on conditioning. When I asked players after the Wagner game if practices are almost harder than games, they laughed, nodded their heads and said "You've seen them."
What some may try to paint as a grand experiment is something being done out of necessity and, for now, that will have to suffice for Robert Morris. The early returns are certainly encouraging, but as many people know, the final verdict won't come until we see how this team performs over time in a sample size larger than two games.
At the very least, we know this -- there may not be a more interesting storyline to follow in the NEC for the rest of the season.
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