A Five-Year Run Like No Other ...

By Paul Meyer
www.rmucolonials.com
March 27, 2012

Meyer on Morris Link

Moon Township, Pa. - No question the Robert Morris University Colonials greatly elevated their program over the past five seasons.

In that span, during which RMU established a bunch of school records, the Colonials were 117-56 overall and 71-19 in Northeast Conference games, the best five-season records in both categories in league history. Add in their combined record in NEC Tournament games in those five seasons, 11-3, and they were 82-22 against league opposition.

They played in the National Invitation Tournament in 2008, played in the NCAA Tournament in 2009 and 2010, played in the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament in 2012 and played in the NEC Tournament championship game the past four seasons.

Compare those gaudy numbers and achievements to their record in the previous five seasons.

From 2003 through 2007, the Colonials were 70-72 overall and 47-43 in the NEC. Add in their combined record in NEC Tournament games in those five seasons, 2-4, and they were 49-47 against league opposition.

In those five seasons, they played in no postseason tournaments beyond the NEC event.

So, no question the Colonials greatly elevated their program from 2008 through 2012.

But here is a question: Where does the Colonial program go from 2013 through 2017?

Ponder that for a moment or two. Kind of intriguing, isn't it?

The Colonials improved from an average of 14 wins per season over a five-year stretch to an average of 23.4 victories per season over the next five-year span. It's kind of difficult to imagine them improving another 9.4 wins per season over the next five years, but let's say they add another five wins per season.

That would get them into the realm of not only total domination of the NEC but also winning games in the postseason beyond the NEC Tournament - as in the NCAA Tournament. Or the NIT.

Is there any chance that could happen?

"I think there is,'' RMU head coach Andrew Toole said in the wake of the Colonials' 26-11 finish this season. "I think what has to happen, though, is our league has to get some more respect.''

Enough additional respect that the NEC champion gets better than a No. 16 or No. 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Over the past 15 seasons, only one NEC champion has had a better seed than that. In 2002, Central Connecticut State was a 14th seed when it lost to Pitt, 71-54, in the NCAA event.

"If our league champion is a 15 or a 16 (seed), it makes things a lot more difficult,'' Toole said.

However, if the NEC champion could improve to consistently being even a 14 or a 13 seed, "things'' become less difficult indeed.

Consider, say, Ohio University - which Robert Morris defeated in each of the past three regular seasons.

The Bobcats were a 14th seed in 2010 and upset Georgetown 97-83 in Providence - where only hours earlier the 15th-seeded Colonials almost upset Villanova, you'll recall. This season, Ohio University was a 13th seed in the NCAA Tournament and upset Michigan, 65-60, and South Florida, 62-56, before losing to North Carolina, 73-65, in overtime.

That's three NCAA victories in three years for the Bobcats, who are scheduled to visit Robert Morris next season.

"I'm not saying what Ohio U.'s done isn't incredible,'' Toole said, "(but) I don't know if you're going to be able to do what they've done (from) the 16 line in the NCAA Tournament.''

Had Robert Morris won the NEC championship this season, it's possible the Colonials would have been a 14th seed in the NCAA Tournament. As it was, NEC champion LIU Brooklyn, which finished 25-9, was a 16th seed.

Wagner, which RMU beat in the NEC Tournament semifinals, was 25-6 this season, meaning three NEC teams won at least 25 games. Pretty good, but not good enough.

"The league is better,'' Toole said, "but the perception (of the NEC from outside) has to be better. We have to go out and win some nonconference games. You have to play some people. You have to win some games. You have to create a great (league) resume. If you can improve your (NCAA seed), you have a better chance of winning a game.''

Perhaps the Colonials winning two games on the road in the CIT event will help the NEC's status.

"I think so,'' Toole said. "I think it definitely did. But everyone's got to do their part.''

No question - again - that Robert Morris did its part this season.

It won 11 nonconference games, including early victories at James Madison and against LaSalle at the Palestra.

"I think some Northeast Conference teams don't beat a Colonial Athletic Association team and an Atlantic 10 team in a couple seasons, let alone in the same week,'' Toole said. "I thought that was an impressive feat for our guys.''

The Colonials also won at Duquesne, another Atlantic 10 team. There was the win at Ohio University.

"Being able to win 10 games before Christmas - the first time that's been done in school history (was) definitely a highlight,'' Toole said. "And we did it in dramatic fashion with the win at the buzzer at Youngstown State.''

There was the 13-5 finish in the NEC, good for third place. The fourth consecutive appearance in the league championship game. The 14 road wins, including those at Indiana State and Toledo in the CIT. A school-record 37 games played. The school-record-tying 26 victories.

"I think there are a lot of things to be proud of with these guys and with this group,'' Toole said.

Of course, there is the one bummer.

"Not going to the NCAA Tournament,'' Toole said. "That's why we do what we do. It's why we work as hard as we work. To lose that championship game (at LIU Brooklyn) and not play very well in the championship game, that's clearly the most disappointing thing.''

However, the Colonials figure to have a great chance to get back to that NEC championship game again next season. A fifth consecutive appearance would match Fairleigh Dickinson's achievement in 1985-89.

Lawrence Bridges, who averaged 3.8 points and 3.8 rebounds per game this season, is the only senior who will be lost.

There could be another player or two who doesn't return after Toole finishes end-of-the-season sessions with his players.

"We have a lot of conversations with guys at the end of the year about what their position is, where they are within the program, how hard guys are willing to work to maybe improve their position in the program and talk to them about what's expected and what they need to do in order to continue to be a part of the program,'' Toole said. "Do they enjoy what's going on? Are they enjoying school? Are they enjoying the team, the program? And then we'll try to make the best decisions we can for each and every one of them about what their future holds.''

Those give-and-take sessions sometimes produce suggestions from the players that are incorporated into the next season's plans.

"Last year, Lijah (Thompson wanted) more individual film sessions with me, so we tried to do more of that this year,'' Toole said. "It was a great idea. I didn't really think they would want to sit with me and watch film. Sometimes I think they've had enough of me. Sometimes you get pieces of information from places you don't expect.''

The Colonials have signed one player who will be a freshman next season - 6'9'' Stephan Hawkins from Gary, Ind.

"He needs to get stronger,'' Toole said. "He's long, athletic. Body-wise, he's similar to Dallas Green, but I believe he has more skills right now than Dallas did coming out of high school.''

Green, who was 6'8'' and 210 pounds when he played for the Colonials in 2007-10, was another Hoosier - from Indianapolis. He played sparingly as a freshman, scoring only nine points, but he developed into a "glue guy'' for Robert Morris and contributed heavily to their 2009 and 2010 NCAA Tournament teams. He finished his career with 497 points and will be forever remembered for his last-second, game-winning shot against Mount St. Mary's in the 2009 NEC Tournament championship game at the Charles L. Sewall Center.

It's possible Toole will be able to bring in another recruit or two.

"We need another guy to help Coron Williams out as a shooter and a scorer,'' Toole said. "I thought he kind of wore down as the year went on, maybe played too many minutes. And I think we need another inside guy. I think we need some help rebounding the basketball. Lucky (Jones) and Russell (Johnson) do a great job of rebounding the ball. Mike (McFadden) and Lijah and Keith (Armstrong are) just so-so. I think Stephan Hawkins is going to help us rebound, but I think we might need more help.''

The Colonials are scheduled to play in next season's preseason NIT - which could include a matchup against Pitt - and they have games scheduled at Louisiana-Lafayette, at Rider and at Hampton. Ohio University, as mentioned above, is scheduled to play RMU at the Sewall Center, as is Duquesne.

That means the Colonials have some holes in their nonconference schedule - and having had another successful season and winning two games in the CIT won't help them fill those.

"To be honest, the fact we've continued to win is probably going to continue to make scheduling harder,'' Toole said. "When people look at our roster and the way we've performed, it's not going to get any easier. It wasn't easy before, and it's going to be a challenge still.''

KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES (AND OTHERS): Senior-to-be Velton Jones had quite a 2011-12 season. Voted by the league's coaches to the All-Northeast Conference First Team, Jones finished with 591 points, the second-highest season total in RMU history behind the 614 points Myron Walker scored in 1991-92 ... Jones' 591 points also established a record for an RMU junior ... Chipper Harris scored 540 in his junior season in 1982-83 ... Jones begins next season with 1,259 career points, 11th on the RMU list and only 18 short of Keith Jones' total of 1,277 (1995-99) ... Lucky Jones had a solid freshman season. Voted by the league's coaches to the NEC All-Rookie Team, Jones scored 296 points and had 213 rebounds ... Seniors-to-be Russell Johnson and Lijah Thompson will begin next season with 869 and 561 career points, respectively ... Junior-to-be Coron Williams has a total of 635 career points.