Robert Morris men's basketball team overcomes obstacles to find success
Afew weeks ago during practice, or what passed for one, Robert Morris men's basketball coach Andy Toole sat courtside in Sewall Center. He fiddled with his phone and talked to a reporter, keeping an occasional eye on things.
Meanwhile, center Stephan Hawkins nursed a sprained ankle in the trainer's room while his seven teammates shot and performed other non-arduous tasks. Some left the court for media interviews.
A visitor found all of this odd.
“It's Monday,” former RMU point guard Velton Jones said. “We'd be goin' hard.”
‘It's been interesting'
These are different times, and this was a different Monday.
Toole, to be sure, can push a team mentally and physically, but circumstances required a course correction. Part of that meant easing the workload for a roster of just eight players. RMU began the season with 14 players, but six left in January because they quit or were suspended.
In regular practices, Toole enlists the aid of students, assistants and managers — “anybody and everybody who can put on a pair of sneakers,” he said. “It's been interesting.”
Interesting, too, is how RMU surmounted its manpower shortage, plus a terrible nonconference season, and finished 14-2 in the Northeast Conference to repeat as regular-season champions.
Led by deadeye shooter Karvel Anderson, the Colonials earned an automatic NIT bid and home-court advantage in the conference tournament starting Wednesday against Fairleigh Dickinson.
Supporting one another
Toole said he probably has uttered the words, “I'm proud of our guys,” more in the past few weeks than in his first three seasons as coach.
“In my short head-coaching career, some of the most positive memories I'll have will come from (the conference season),” he said. “Some of the resolve, some of the communication between the guys, some of the effort the guys have made has been really, really inspiring.
“And I'm probably the most fortunate person because I'm able to see it all.”
Toole singled out a leadership core of Anderson, senior guard Anthony Myers-Pate and junior forward Lucky Jones for helping keep things together.
“We've had things trouble us the entire season,” said Anderson, who is scoring a league-best 19.6 points per game while making more 3-pointers (103) at a higher percentage (44.6) than anyone in the conference. “We've been able to overcome everything and never hang our heads and know that whatever happens, we've got each other's back.”
Rough start to the season
Before losing almost half its roster, RMU had other issues.
The Colonials, missing Jones and another steady senior, Russell Johnson, from last season's team, muddled to 5-10 nonconference record. Included was a blowout loss at then-No. 1 Kentucky, which dimmed the glow of last season's upset in the NIT.
Asked if the team doubted itself entering the NEC season, Myers-Pate replied, “Oh, yes, we did. We didn't think we were gonna be as good because certain pieces weren't falling into place. We asked each other, ‘What are we gonna do?' ”
Toole already acted in one regard. Re-watching an ugly loss to Youngstown State in early December, he focused on opponents' straight-line drives and blow-bys that were shredding his man-to-man defense.
“What are we doing? Why are we doing this?” he remembers thinking.
Forced by his players' limitations and new rules that restrict contact, Toole, a dedicated man-to-man coach, switched to a 2-3 zone. It paid off.
“(The officials) were taking some of the physicality out of the game, which is something we had specialized in for a number of years,” he said.
‘They've stepped up'
The ugly nonconference stretch also helped by steeling the team's resolve, Toole said.
The Colonials started fast in the NEC. But more trouble was bubbling.
In early January, junior-college transfer Desjuan Newton quit the team. Then senior Mike McFadden, whose foul shots in the final seconds helped beat Kentucky last season, also left. Both cited personal reasons.
On Jan. 23, while warming up for a home game against Sacred Heart, the team was informed that four players were suspended for a year for violating university policy (the specifics have not been disclosed). All were new to the program. One of them, freshman forward Jeremiah Worthem, had just repeated as NEC Rookie of the Week.
“It was 10 minutes before the game,” Myers-Pate said. “Crazy. The refs were asking us, like, ‘Where are the rest of your players at?' ”
“Eight is Enough,” the name of a popular TV show from years in the late 1970s and early 80s, became the obvious theme.
On a touch screen in the locker room, an altered picture of the original cast displays the faces of the Colonials' players replacing the eight kids. Toole is the dad, his wife, Brooke, the mom.
“We said, ‘This is going to work. Eight is going to be enough,' ” Toole said. “But there can't be any other agendas. Everybody has to fully buy what we trying to do. They've stepped up and bought into it, and they've been great.”