Robert Morris hasn’t been immune to an inconsistent schedule and mixed results hampering so many college basketball teams in the COVID-19 era. The program has been shut down twice with COVID-19 infections, resulting in missed games and little practice time.
For anyone who has followed the Robert Morris basketball program for any number of years, you know the importance head coach Andy Toole puts on practice. Guys do not see the court unless they are practicing well. What they’ve accomplished a game or two before has little impact on playing time moving forward.
Perhaps I thought – naively – that the Colonials would be better equipped to handle missed practice and game time due to the experience on the roster. Robert Morris returned its starting point guard, shooting guard, power forward and center, and had a key rotation piece, Cameron Wilbon, back after missing the 2019-20 season with a wrist injury.
The results through the first month of the season have been mixed. The Colonials smashed NAIA Point Park in the season opener in a game that wasn’t as close as the 18-point final score indicated. They played 30 minutes of good basketball against MAC preseason favorite Bowling Green and never really stood a chance against Marshall, who will compete with Western Kentucky for the Conference USA title.
But perhaps nothing summed up the first month of basketball as much as the program’s Horizon League opening weekend against Purdue Fort Wayne, a team that has offensive output but does not expect to be serious contenders for a conference title this season.
Robert Morris showed offensive firepower rarely seen in program history. Their 102 points in a 14-point victory in the Horizon League opener were the most scored against a Division I opponent in the Toole era.
And if anyone thought AJ Bramah would take a step back due to the step up in competition, he quieted those doubts for a weekend. Bramah dominated the Mastodons, using his Dick Barnett-style jumper and athleticism at the rim to the tune of 28 points on 11-of-18 shooting in game one and 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting in game two, grabbing eight rebounds in both games.
Although a small sample size, Bramah has increased his mid-range jumper volume to the tune of 29 percent of all shots last season versus 43.8 percent this season. While Bramah’s efficiency spiked dramatically with his 2-point jumper, it’s still worth remembering that he — like almost all players, especially forwards – is a more efficient offensive player around the rim, even when shooting in traffic.
Bramah’s rise in 2-point jumper usage is especially interesting when looking at the Colonials as a whole. They have several players who thrive as jump shooters, especially freshman guards Trayden Williams and Kam Farris. Williams actually leads the team in percent of 2-point jump shots at 48.5 percent.
And, at least for a weekend, the high volume of jump shooting was no problem, albeit against a poor defensive team. The Colonials scored 123.5 points per 100 possessions through two games.
What’s been a much larger issue has been slowing teams on the defensive end. Consider that the Colonials are still forcing turnovers on about 20 percent of all possessions, close to matching the same clip as last season, which put them in the top 50 nationally.
What’s been a much different story has been the actual on-ball defense – and everything that follows in RMU’s defensive scheme. Opponents are shooting 43 percent from 3, 56.7 percent from 2 and have a collective effective field goal percentage of 59.5 percent, putting the Colonials 317th nationally.
There are some distinct reasons this is happening, but not one quick fix. First, we can see how easily interconnected the game of basketball is. RMU’s offensive turnover percentage has risen from 18.7 percent one year ago to 21.3 through five games this year. That may sound like a small difference, but it’s actually quite large. That takes the Colonials from 165 nationally to 245. Opponents are getting easy, fast break opportunities. These are free points that could be avoided by valuing the basketball more.
Robert Morris is also rotating in three new freshman guards (Farris, Williams and Cheeks), a freshman forward (Pat Suemnick), transfer forward (Khaliel Spear) and sparingly-used forward (Olisa Ngondai) to help replace center Yannis Mendy. Even if on the surface almost all of these players profile as good defenders, they’re not moving well as a collective unit.
And the times the Colonials do move well, do everything right and force a missed shot? Teams are grabbing offensive rebounds against RMU at one of the top clips in the country. Even when everything is done correctly, the job isn’t finished.
The Colonials are a small team that gets smaller without the injured Charles Bain. While Bramah is holding down his end on the defensive rebounding side, no one else really is. Again, while we’re talking about a small sample size, Ngondai, Suemnick and Spear have defensive rebounding percentages of 8.1, 9.0 and 9.0, respectively. That’s what you expect out of point guard Jon Williams, not forwards getting significant minutes. These inexperienced players are going to have to grow up quick and do the dirty work for team success.
The Colonials have shown glimpses of their true potential. Bramah, Dante Treacy and Williams have all been as good as advertised offensively, and every incoming player has impressed in some way at some point. But right now, Robert Morris looks like a team of individuals rather than a collective unit. This is likely the result of little practice, but the longer these issues persists, the more questions will remain.