Robert Morris’ frustrating season continued in the program’s second weekend of Horizon League action with a gutsy win sans three starters on Friday followed by a third shutdown due to COVID-19 on Saturday.
The Colonials, now 3-3 overall and 2-1 in conference play, have lost a total of seven scheduled games on the season with two more – an upcoming weekend series against IUPUI – in jeopardy. An announcement about the upcoming games is expected to be handed down through Horizon League offices by Wednesday or Thursday.
The stop and start nature of RMU’s season is putting the team in a tough spot.
Head coach Andy Toole has had little time to determine his best lineups and rotations, a difficult task to begin with as the team welcomed three freshmen guards – Kam Farris, Enoch Cheeks and Trayden Williams – plus two new big men – transfer Khaliel Spear and freshman Pat Suemnick – into the program. Toole is typically tinkering with his lineups and rotations throughout the non-conference section of the season. That obviously could not happen this year.
Though we’re only talking about three games, forward AJ Bramah has played like one of the five best players in the Horizon League. Through the season, he’s averaged 21.2 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game. Bramah is a force that has not come around Robert Morris too often. Toole has coached his fair share of great players, many of which either transferred up or graduated and played professionally overseas. None of them have ever averaged 20 points per game through a full season.
And despite the NCAA offering an extended year of eligibility for all players, Bramah is still a senior, will be 22 in May and might be ready to start the next phase of his life, whether that’s professional basketball or something else. It is turning into a real shame, for all parties involved, that Bramah and Robert Morris will not even approach a full slate of games.
If you’re beginning to read a sense of urgency, you would be right. Robert Morris, in theory, has the perfect setup to compliment a team engine by the strong, athletic forward.
Robert Morris is 13th in the country in 3-point shooting percentage (40.2 percent) and at least provided a glimpse of its defensive potential in Friday’s victory against Milwaukee, limiting solid Milwaukee players like Te’Jon Lucas and Josh Thomas into poor offensive performances.
The Colonials still have issues to work out, but solid 3-point shooting, a star forward, veteran guard play and improving defense with a top-tier coach is a great formula to potentially win any game on any night.
The big question, obviously, is if Robert Morris will continue to have the opportunity to work out at all.
It would be a shame if RMU’s season gets essentially derailed due to COVID-19 protocol. On Friday night, with senior guard Jon Williams and junior guard Dante Treacy out due to COVID-19 and forward Charles Bain out with a leg injury, the Colonials started five players who didn’t play a minute for the team last season. Although Bramah came off the bench early in the contest and recorded a game-high 36 minutes, RMU also relied heavily on the freshmen trio of Trayden Williams, Farris and Cheeks to man the backcourt.
Aside from Bramah, Spear (25 minutes), Olisa Ngondai (13 minutes) and Suemnick (10 minutes) combined with Cameron Wilbon (32 minutes) – a redshirt sohpomore who does a little bit of everything for the Colonials – to patch together a rotation worthy of competing. Even walk-on sophomore Terrell brown played five minutes in the game.
It was a matchup Robert Morris had every excuse to lose. Despite relatively low expectations for Milwaukee, the Panthers did only lose to Kansas State by one, swept their opening conference weekend against Green Bay, and are actually ranked ahead of the Colonials in KenPom rankings.
Yet in typical fashion, Robert Morris grinded out a hard-fought victory, winning a defensive battle that RMU fans have been treated to so many times before.
Winning conference basketball games are difficult, and even more difficult when a team defends to the level RMU was defending and rebounds to the level RMU was rebounding. The Colonials were getting smashed in both categories, allowing well over 1.0 points-per-possession (and in most cases around 1.20) with defensive rebounding percentages among the worst in the country.
To not just defeat Milwaukee, but to hold them to 0.96 points per possession and dominate the glass to the tune of a 47-32 margin – all with a number of star players out and inexperienced freshmen in – showed the type of toughness that all good teams have.
For the first time in a long time, Robert Morris has a team where everyone on the roster can play without being overwhelmed. That’s a credit to Toole and his staff for recruiting the talent they did. That’s not to say all of these players are flawless. There’s still a lot to learn about shot selection, running offense and the switching aspects of RMU’s defense.
Friday night’s victory was about maturity, toughness and overcoming adversity. Only time will tell if Robert Morris gets the opportunity to build off of that win and begin carrying real momentum through the team’s tough stretch of conference play.