As a way to informally wrap things up for the 2013-14 season, I sat down this week with Robert Morris coach Andy Toole to have a conversation about last season and a little bit about the program's immediate future.
It's something of an exit interview, with one eye on the past and one looking forward.
Below is a full transcript of our talk.
When you all went down to eight guys in January, did you honestly envision the team doing as well as it did? "I hope we would have. I thought that along the way there might be a few more losses just because situationally, with eight guys, whether it's foul trouble or whatever it might be in the course of a game, I just thought those things would happen on a couple other occasions. And they didn't. In some of the situations where we did find ourselves down, we were able to make great comebacks and win. I think it's a testament to the guys that were in the locker room and the way that they stepped up and played together."
From that experience, was there anything you learned about those guys, about that team or even about the game itself, just being able to do that well with so few players? "You're constantly learning as a coach. I think one of the things you learn is making sure you have the right guys in the locker room, making sure you have the right guys that are buying in and the power of team a little bit. Some of our guys -- and we talked about it during the course of the year -- maybe weren't playing consistent minutes prior to going down to eight guys really stepped up and played their roles like we needed them to, and how important it is making sure everyone's doing what's necessary for the team versus maybe what's best for them.
"I think you saw some guys who started to be much more effective as players once they started to buy in to the role that the program envisions for them and maybe not the role they envision for themselves. That way, they had more individual success as well as team success."
Were there any guys in particular who stood out to you, ones that grew a whole lot as players due to that situation? "Everybody stood out to me, but Stephan Hawkins, David Appolon -- those were two guys that statistically made significant jumps, had a lot of big plays and contributed a lot. Aaron Tate was a guy who really solidified a lot of what we did and maybe his stuff didn't show up as much statistically, but the ability to rely on him during that stretch of the season was really important to our success. Those are three guys who I think really made great jumps.
"Chuck, all year long, had made some shots and been involved. Kavon, all year long, you had seen his talent. But I think those three guys really went from not sure what we would get or how much they'd contribute previously in their careers to being really important pieces of the team that helped us win a lot of games."
Do you feel like the whole storyline and narrative built around the Crazy Eight ever got overblown? "That was the guys' thing. I don't think it got overplayed. From an outside perspective some people might say 'You only need five guys on the court and you've got eight, so what's the big deal?' But when you're on the inside from a program perspective, when you've coached teams before and you...number one, have that kind of turmoil during a season that can be extremely disruptive and number two, just the daily management of your program is completely different than it was previously, in terms of practice, conserving energy and everything that you do. To continue to remain effective and have success even after you're not getting the reps you need in practice every day, figuring out different and more creative ways to utilize your time versus being on the court and running people down.
"You can't overstate the fact of what these individuals did to remain focused and to put themselves in a position to continually win. That's something that I take in terms of how good those guys were to work with and how flexible they were in the different situations we found ourselves in. And that's outside of games. Whether it's getting an extra scouting report in or being more creative in a walk-through in a hotel versus going and having shootaround...it's easy when you have 12 guys and everyone gets to rest in practice and everyone gets plenty of reps and when they need to take rest, they do that. When you're down to eight guys and you're trying to go as hard as you can playing against an assistant coach, knowing you don't have a sub during the course of practice, knowing you can't take a practice off because there aren't enough dudes to get by, those are some of the things people don't understand on the outside which make it so difficult to have the success when you have limited numbers. They all did great, great jobs with all of it."
With having the success you all have had the last two seasons and not being able to make the NCAA tournament, does that get frustrating at all or is that something you feel gets overplayed? "It gets completely frustrating, there's no doubt. It gets frustrating for the guys who are on your team, who put in all that effort, time and work. You want them to be rewarded by going to the NCAA tournament, you want to help them achieve a goal of theirs. It's part of your job as a coach. It is frustrating, it is difficult when you consistently are in a position to do that or you put yourself in a good position to do that, but it doesn't happen for you or happen for the program.
"It is frustrating, but everyone gets judged on their success in March and the tournament and all that kind of stuff. If you ask coaches around the country, there are a lot of other things they evaluate themselves on, but it's also what it is in our industry that being a part of the NCAA tournament and having success there, if that's what your expectations are, that's what you get evaluated on. It's the way of the world, I guess."
It's obviously not Kentucky, but by going on the road and being able to beat a top seed in the NIT for the second year in a row, is that another positive step for the program? "I think any time you have sustained success, that's a positive for your program. Obviously, after last year's win against Kentucky, that was huge, as we've talked about many times. But then to be able to go on the road and win a game in the fashion that we did, it also really speaks to what kind of program we have and what kind of kids we have in the locker room. They faced probably their biggest adversity or disappointment of the season by losing in the championship game and were still able to get themselves back together to go on the road and beat a St. John's team convincingly. With nine minutes to go in the game, we were up 26 points. It didn't obviously get as much play as the Kentucky stuff, I think because of the game being at our place and the name Kentucky, but it was in many ways, a better performance than the Kentucky game with the way the guys played together, some of the plays we made, the way we shot the ball, the way we executed.
"I think from a coaching standpoint, the fact you can go back and replicate some of that success is what you want to see in your program. You want guys who are constantly trying to push forward and raise the bar a little bit. I'm really proud of the way they were able to bounce back and compete in that game."
As far as Karvel and his professional future, have you talked to him much about it and how do you project it to possibly be? "We've talked about it a bunch since and we've had some meetings and we've met with some people that are interested in representing him. I think it's something he can make a career out of. It's a situation where I think he'll have the opportunity to be on a team and be paid next year. I don't know if that will be here domestically. I think his opportunities might be more overseas, but depending on how he plays and continues to improve his game, I would never put it past him for doing it for a number of years or maybe even coming back here [to the United States] and finding a niche, finding a spot where he can find success here in the states.
"We've talked about that and I think he's in agreement where he would obviously love to be an NBA player -- I think every college player would love to be an NBA player -- but he also understands that he wants to play the game as long as someone will let him play. If he can make some money doing it, that's great. But I do think he has a bright future as a professional, wherever that might be."
When you have a guy like Karvel who can do something like 3-point shooting that well, that's something that can allow someone to have a long pro career, right? "His ability to shoot and score and be a shot-maker is something that is rare. If you look around the country, there are very few guys that made more 3s than him or made a higher percentage. He's top 10 in the country in both. His ability to shoot off the dribble -- one-dribble pull-ups, different things like that -- and his ability to make guarded shots is something that's extremely valuable. At the end of the day, it's how well you can put the ball in the basket and his ability to do it at such an efficient rate is something that makes him unique. If you look at professional basketball, they're always looking for players like that.
"The feedback we've gotten from people we've talked to at the professional level have all said the same thing -- his ability to shoot and score is something that's going to be a commodity. That sets him up, as long as he goes and does the right things and continues to work, to have the opportunity to have a really good career."
I don't want to use the term 'rebuilding,' but for next season with just six guys coming back, is it going to be something of a bridge year with a lot of new guys trying to find their roles? "We brought six guys back into this year's class and we were able to win 22 games and a regular season championship. I think the expectations will be the same, that those six guys who come back will be expected to continue to play the way they have, if not make a bigger jump, and then the pieces we bring in are going to be expected to help us continue to have success. That's the plan and that's what we'll start working toward as soon as we have spring workouts going, weights going and then when guys get here for summer school. That will be the expectation that we demand. That'll be how we work to prepare for next year.
"There are more significant returners in terms of playing time over the last 18 games of this year than there were the previous year when we lost Velton, Russell and Coron Williams and we eventually lost Mike McFadden. Those were four starters we basically didn't have for all of conference play. Obviously Karvel was our leading scorer, but he was off the bench. Lucky was a starter and had a very, very good year and continued to have a good year. But Dave didn't play as a sophomore, Hawk was a role guy and really that was pretty much it. Part of this job is to figure out how to work with what you have and figure out how to make them successful. I think our staff did a good job of doing that during the course of this year. As we recruit kids, we want to be able to identify kids that are going to be able to come in and contribute to us winning. Obviously it happens a lot, but when most kids look at a school, they don't anticipate on coming into a rebuilding situation. They want to be part of a winning situation. That's how we'll coach them, that's how we'll prepare them and that's how we'll challenge them getting ready for next year."
When it comes to filling out those open scholarships for next season, are you planning more on targeting junior college guys, freshmen? Is there a particular kind of focus here for you in the offseason? "Everything. Best players we can find, whether they're junior college guys, high school guys, fifth-year transfers, four-year transfers, who knows? I think you'd be foolish not to explore every option and possibility. You'd like to create balance on your roster if you can, but I'd rather have good players instead of balance. We're trying to identify the best players and make them part of the program.
Do you expect to have Jeremiah Worthem and Britton Lee back for next season? "I'm not sure yet."
Is that something you'd get to in January when the suspension runs out? "Some of that stuff's outside my control anyway. You'd have to go meet with other people on campus to have that conversation."
[NOTE: Toole said Worthem and Lee's scholarships do not count toward the team's limit for next season.]
Is there anyone for next season who you're maybe looking to take a big step and play that much greater of a role for this team? "Obviously, Kavon is one of those guys. He's a guy who's going to have a lot more on his plate next year. He showed glimpses of being able to handle that and there were times when he looked like a freshman. I think Kavon's somebody that can be more consistent next year for us to be successful. He's going to have a lot on his shoulders and a lot of responsibility. The way he handles that responsibility is going to really dictate how good of a team we can become."