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Robert Morris men picked second in Northeast Conference

| Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012, 1:52 p.m.
Christopher Horner
Robert Morris' Velton Jones scores between Long Island's Jason Brickman (left) and Julian Boyd during their game Thursday Jan. 26, 2012 at Sewall Center in Moon. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Things have been humming along for a while at Robert Morris.

In the past five seasons, the Colonials have played in the league championship game and the postseason four times and taken two trips to the NCAA Tournament. Over that stretch, they are also in a ninth-place tie with Kent State nationwide among mid-majors, with a record of 117-56.

Still, third-year coach Andy Toole will tell you, there is a level of incompleteness to that resume.

What's the problem?

Since Toole succeeded Mike Rice as the then youngest coach in Division I, RMU has fallen twice to regular-season champion Long Island University in the Northeast Conference title game.

No surprise there, really, in a league in which the regular-season champ draws the conference No. 1 seed and home-site advantage come tournament time.

Robert Morris' history is this: Since the league was formed in the early 1980s, the Colonials are a perfect 5-0 in title games played at home.

“It's an enormous advantage,” the 32-year-old Toole said Tuesday at NEC Media Day at Brooklyn's Barclays Center. “Winning the conference is a goal, and it's something we've discussed heavily the last two years.”

This year?

The Colonials again are picked to finish second in the annual preseason coaches poll. Just behind — you guessed it — LIU. Wagner, Quinnipiac and St. Francis (N.Y.) followed in the poll.

Sacred Heart, Monmouth, Central Connecticut, Mt. St. Mary's, Bryant and Fairleigh Dickinson were voted sixth through 11th, with St. Francis (Pa.) chosen to finish last in the 12-team league.

RMU (26-11, 13-5 in 2011-12) received three first-place votes on the coaches' ballots.

Colonial point guard Velton Jones was named to the preseason all-conference team, along with last season's Player of the Year, Julian Boyd (LIU), Jamal Olasewere (LIU), Ike Azotam (Quinnipiac) and Shane Gibson (Sacred Heart).

The balloting was done before RMU's 6-foot-7 senior starter Lijah Thompson (7.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg) went down with a season-ending ACL injury in a pre-practice workout session.

“A big blow to us,” Toole said. “When you look at the teams in this conference, the size they have inside, and how much the league has improved in the last few years, someone like Lijah was really important to us.”

Even without Thompson, the Colonials have experienced returnees. Jones and backcourt mate Coron Williams are back to frazzle opposition defenses. Russell Johnson and Mike McFadden supply inside muscle. And Lucky Jones was last season's off-the-bench spark.

Toole has added JUCO transfers Vaughn Morgan, who stands 6-8, and deep shooter Carvel Anderson.

The challenge is to try and win a regular-season title in a league that had three 25-win teams last season in RMU, LIU (25-9) and Wagner (25-6).

In 2011, RMU was edged in overtime by LIU when a Johnson buzzer shot to extend the game to double-OT was off target. In 2012, the Colonials were beaten, 90-73, by the Blackbirds after star guard Jones suffered a broken rib in the opening minute of play.

“He's the guy who makes us go,” Toole said of the Philadelphia point guard.

Both of those games were played at LIU's downtown Brooklyn campus, a foreign environment in front of a hostile crowd. Eight of the NEC's past 11 champions have won the championship on their own home courts.

“They were at home and we saw that as a vital edge for them,” said Toole, who played twice in the NCAA Tournament as a Penn point guard. “That doesn't mean we would have beaten them at our place, but it is where we want to be.”

Note: The Robert Morris women were picked to finish fifth in the preseason poll. Junior forward Artemis Spanou was named to the preseason all-NEC team for the second consecutive year.

Cormac Gordon is a freelance writer.

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