It's been written about and mentioned ad nauseam over the past several weeks, but the point remains the same -- for mid- and low-major schools, especially those that are struggling, conference play represents a fresh start to the season.
Robert Morris has more than exemplified that mindset so far. A team that seemed unable to generate any sort of momentum in non-conference play has found just that of late, winning its first four NEC games, two of which came on the road against what many figured to be two of the top squads in the league.
Sure, the team's resurgence is a testament to the power of second chances. But how has it happened? What's taking place now that wasn't as recently as two weeks ago?
Some of the reasons for the surge are more important than others, but a few factors have played at least some part in Robert Morris' recent winning ways:
The zone defense has taken hold -- and done so effectively
The first 15 games of the season were confounding not only because of the Colonials' inconsistency, but what was causing that inconsistency -- particularly on defense, a facet of the game in which the program was so accustomed to thriving.
Andy Toole is a man that is normally very committed to man-to-man principles on defense, but he's also a very good coach. He noticed that his defense was having problems and made the necessary decision to switch to a matchup 2-3 zone.
As with everything, there were growing pains in the switch, especially for a group of players so accustomed to playing man-to-man. There are still some elements of a traditional man defense in the scheme (it's not like Syracuse's zone), but it was an adjustment nonetheless.
Since the switch has been made, the team's defensive numbers have improved. In the Colonials' first nine games, they gave up an average of 1.12 points per possession. In the 10 games since, that number has dropped to 1.09. Granted, that's not a huge drop, but it's an improvement, nonetheless. From a points per game allowed standpoint, those numbers have gone from 80.2 to 73.4. I will stress, though, that points per game isn't the best statistical measure, solely because it doesn't take tempo into consideration.
While the switch to zone has made a noticeable impression, the start of NEC play has brought about a more drastic improvement on defense. Robert Morris allowed 1.12 points per possession in its 15 non-conference games, but in its four NEC contests, it has allowed 1.03 points per possession. The former of those stats would rank RMU as the 323rd-best team in Division I (which has 351 teams). The latter would rank them as the 189th-best.
Is the defense where it has been in the past for the Colonials? No. But there's little doubt that the zone has taken hold for this team and with the scheme more firmly in place, Robert Morris has begun to thrive.
The schedule has been easier
For all the strides that the Colonials have made, it would be an incomplete picture of improvement if their opposition wasn't mentioned. Part of the redemption narrative exists in conference play is because, in some cases, the schedule starts to ease up for a team that plays in a smaller league like the NEC. For Robert Morris, that's been the case.
As disconcerting as the 5-10 start was at times, it didn't exist in a vacuum -- that is, Robert Morris played some pretty good teams during that stretch. Since I started covering basketball my sophomore year at Boston University, when the schedule of the team I'm covering comes out, I go through it pick out the "There's no way in hell they're winning that one" games. This season, I picked out Kentucky and Oklahoma State for the Colonials, two road games against preseason top-10 teams.
And it wasn't just those two teams that presented stringent challenges. Five of RMU's other non-conference opponents -- Toledo (65), Alabama (87), Delaware (93), Cleveland State (95) and Eastern Michigan (96) -- are all ranked among the top 100 teams in the KenPom rankings. So, for those of you doing the math at home, seven of the Colonials' first 15 games -- and seven of their 10 losses -- came against the top 100 teams in the country.
Obviously, since NEC play has started, that has changed.
The average KenPom ranking of Robert Morris' first 15 opponents was 142.2 (again, there are 351 DI teams). Meanwhile, its first four NEC opponents carry an average ranking of 251.3 and best team in that stretch (No. 149 Bryant) is rated lower than the non-conference average.
As the competition has eased up, the Colonials have started to find their way.
The 3-point shooting has been ridiculous
This reason's something of an add-in because in the grand scheme of things, it's not nearly as important as the first two. But you need three for a solid list, so here you go.
It's not as if Robert Morris has improved in an area of need; after all, it made 39.5 percent of its 3s in non-conference play (121 of 306), which is better than all but 28 teams in Division I have shot for the season.
It's simply been a matter of the Colonials being unconscious from deep of recent, draining 47 percent of their 3s in their four NEC games. For some context, the top 3-point shooting team in Division I -- Rider -- is making 42.4 percent of its treys this season. Undoubtedly, more than some of this uptick can be tied back to Karvel Anderson, who has made 56.3 percent of his 3s the past four games (18 of 32).
Much like his team, Anderson's 3-point percentage in non-conference play was already more than respectable (45.4), but over the past two weeks, it's just been something else entirely.
The question now becomes how sustainable this improvement is in these three different areas of the game. While the 3-point success is going to be hard to replicate the rest of the season, there's no reason to think some of this can't continue.
The grind of conference play can weigh on teams, but Robert Morris has already played the highest-rated team in its conference (Bryant) and that came on the road in a win. KenPom predicts the Colonials will lose two more games in NEC play -- at St. Francis and at Wagner -- so expect the relative lack of competition to be a constant.
The defense is more of a toss-up, one that could ultimately define the team's season. The Colonials rank 231st in Division I in adjusted defensive efficiency, which isn't great, but it is surprisingly enough the fourth-best mark among the NEC's 10 teams (offensively, they're 95th in the country and second in the conference). This is far from the strongest defensive league, so this doesn't necessarily need to be a traditionally-stifling RMU defense. And as the season progresses and the team works to get even better at the matchup zone, this kind of defensive improvement could continue.
Whether or not they're sustainable, those three factors have salvaged the Colonials' season at a critical juncture. And, at least for now, that's been good enough.
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