Robert Morris saw its season-long goal of reaching the NCAA tournament come to a sudden – and rather unexpected – end Saturday with a home loss to Mount St. Mary’s in the Northeast Conference tournament semifinals.
Let’s get into what went right, what went wrong and everything in between.
*** I’ve seen more than a few people refer to the performance as a “choke,” which is something I’m usually never a fan of (most over and misused term in sports), and it really doesn’t apply in this case. Robert Morris ran into the team that’s playing better than anyone else in the NEC and Mount St. Mary’s did to the Colonials what they’ve done to everyone else over the greater part of the last month – they beat them.
Toole said that the Mountaineers were the one team that nobody in the NEC really wanted to play and it showed. Momentum is one thing, but momentum in the month of March is something else entirely.
*** There were a few references to it in the postgame press conference, but if you want to single out one point where Robert Morris lost the game for good, it was early in the second half when it was trailing 35-27.
Mount St. Mary’s went more than two minutes without scoring, a span in which it missed two shots and turned it over twice. On those turnovers, the Colonials got out in transition but were never able to get buckets. From that point on, the Mountaineers went on a 12-2 run that turned a solid lead into a nearly insurmountable one.
*** If the Colonials’ lack of an effective big man on the low post wasn’t evident enough at different points this season, it definitely was against Mount St. Mary’s.
The 3-point-centric strategy worked really well because Robert Morris had multiple guys who could make those shots with regularity. It was almost like a smokescreen for a problem they never really solved as the year went on.
The issue isn’t a lack of tall players. Lucky Jones and Russell Johnson are both big guys, but they’re also players who don’t have traditional low-post skill sets. They’re more content with hanging on the perimeter or penetrating.
With Lijah Thompson out for the year with his ACL tear, that basically left Mike McFadden, Stephan Hawkins and Keith Armstrong, the last of whom didn’t start playing until over halfway through the season because of an injury.
Hawkins showed some signs of progress this season, but he still has a ways to go before he can become a regular contributor on offense. While McFadden is an effective player, he’s limited on the offensive end, partially due to his limited explosiveness that’s come with the tendinitis that’s developed in his knees.
For all their success, in some respects, the Colonials were a one-dimensional team (strange to say with their balance and depth) and Mount St. Mary’s was able to expose that.
*** Players acknowledged as much in the press conference, but once Robert Morris wasn’t able to routinely get open looks, the players began to grow frustrated and impatient.
For basically the last two months, guys like Velton and Lucky Jones, Karvel Anderson, Coron Williams and Russell Johnson were able to get at least a few feet of space when they shot. When that happens and the shots are falling, a certain rhythm develops. When a team like Mount St. Mary’s gets in your face and makes those shots harder to come by, it gets understandably frustrating.
*** At the same time, though, it was strange to see some of the Robert Morris players double-clutch on pretty open 3-point attempts late in the game. For the last two months, those were catch-and-shoot opportunities they wouldn’t have thought twice about. That’s a microcosm of how effective the Mount St. Mary’s defense was.
*** I mentioned it on Twitter, but when Velton Jones went down deflecting that pass to set up an RMU basket, it perfectly encapsulated the kind of player he is. At the risk of gushing about his toughness, Velton plays with a reckless abandonment in the sense that he’ll do whatever it takes or suffer whatever injury as long as it means it helps his team. It’s a simultaneously self-destructive and selfless mentality, and there’s something admirable about it.
It even managed to kick-start a run and, somehow, he managed to find a way to get back into the game just minutes after lying in the floor in complete and utter pain.
*** It’s pretty telling that Robert Morris had 10 turnovers and Mount St. Mary’s still found a way to consistently create offense. A misconception about pressing teams is they can’t score unless it’s in transition. Some can and some can’t, and the Mountaineers proved they fall into the former category.
*** Credit really has to be given to Jamion Christian. The best coaches have their teams playing their best basketball at the right time of year and whether it’s a product of his team getting adjusted to his system or not, Christian has done just that. It also helps his team plays a really entertaining style of basketball.
Even scarier for the rest of the NEC: the team’s top six scorers return next season. It could be the preseason favorite next year, especially if it wins at LIU Tuesday.
*** Three of Robert Morris’ made 3-pointers came from Anthony Myers-Pate, who entered the game shooting about 22 percent from deep. In fact, he made all three of his attempts from beyond the arc. As for the rest of the team? 2 of 16.
*** Speaking of Myers-Pate, he gave Colonials fans a reason why they shouldn’t be too worried about him running the point next season. Is he going to be Velton Jones? No, and he likely won’t ever be. But here’s the beauty – he doesn’t have to be. Myers-Pate doesn’t turn the ball over very much, he’s developed enough of an offensive game (as evidenced Saturday) and as long as the team still has capable shooters like Anderson and Williams, there will be plenty of people to distribute to.
*** The Colonials scored just 0.856 points per possession, their lowest mark since scoring 0.749 points per possession against Savannah State Nov. 26.
*** I almost hate to go here, but if there is another silver lining for Robert Morris fans, it’s that the loss probably helps ensure that Andy Toole isn’t going anywhere this offseason. There weren’t likely to be many coaching vacancies that would have been good fits (Siena and maybe, maybe Northwestern) and though Toole is an excellent coach, low-major coaches who have yet to make the NCAA tournament don’t generally get a bigger job.
There’s one year left on his contract, so expect an extension this offseason. He’s certainly earned one.
*** One final thing: I think it’s easy to look at Velton Jones’ 2 of 17 shooting performance as a reason why Robert Morris lost. While it played some role, it’s unfair to make him some sort of goat.
Yes, the Colonials went 4-6 this season when he took 10 or more shots, but there’s more to that statistic. Christian made a reference to that record in his press conference, noting that his team wanted to make Jones take at least 10 shots. That’s not because Jones suddenly decided to play hero ball, but Christian knew that if Jones took that many shots, it’s because most of the team’s offensive options weren’t available.
For all of the Colonials’ assets, Jones is one of the few guys on the team who can create his own shot with regularity. When players aren’t getting open looks, as was the case Saturday, most of the offensive load falls on someone like Jones. Thus, he took a lot of shots, many of which were contested. It’s not necessarily an indictment on Jones’ shot selection, but rather the kind of suffocating defense Mount St. Mary’s played.
Besides, it’s hard to criticize a guy who clearly proved he would sacrifice his health, and the rest of his college career, for his team to try to make good on the very slim chances of a comeback.
*** Robert Morris will find out its draw for the NIT Sunday. Hopefully it will be at a close enough location so that I can cover it live. We’ll have to see.
Obviously it’s not where the Colonials wanted to end up, but as Toole said, it’s a chance for them to make the best of an opportunity. And any chance a team gets to continue its season is a good one, even if it doesn’t come in the most ideal circumstances.