Moon Township, Pa. - Six weeks ago when the Robert Morris University Colonials began their Northeast Conference schedule with two home losses, their dilemma wasn't difficult to discern.
They had to start winning - now.
Which they did. Adopting a one practice, one day, one game at a time approach, the Colonials reeled off six consecutive victories to get into the thick of the NEC race.
Then, last Saturday, they won at Sacred Heart, 68-63, and now, with just two weekends left in the regular season, once again their situation isn't difficult to discern.
If they win out, they'll own the regular-season championship and possess the No. 1 seed in the NEC Tournament.
After events in the NEC last weekend, the Colonials are tied with LIU Brooklyn atop the standings. Both teams are 10-4. However, because RMU won at LIU Brooklyn, Feb. 2, in the teams' only regular-season meeting, the Colonials actually lead the league.
But this has been added to the mix now.
"We have to play with that kind of urgency and that kind of passion that we need as a team that controls its own destiny,'' Toole told his players last weekend.
In other words, it's OK to look ahead a little bit. It's OK to look down the road and see what the Colonials could achieve if they take of their business.
"We were doing the day-to-day stuff for a while, but I think with our guys sometimes you need to change the message," Toole said. "Now I think with two weeks to go you kind of need to expand the scope a little bit and say, ‘This is what we have in front of us and this should excite you. You've put yourself in a spot where this is exciting. What team in the country doesn't want to be in a chase for a regular-season championship with four games left to play? I think everyone does.' It's on us. It's going to come down to how we prepare, how we work, how much we put into this, and that will be what we get out of it.''
Of the five main contenders for the NEC regular-season championship, the Colonials face the easiest remaining schedule in terms of the combined winning percentage of their opponents. They play Monmouth (5-9 in the NEC) and Fairleigh Dickinson (2-12) at the Charles L. Sewall Center this weekend, then finish at Bryant (9-4) and Central Connecticut State (6-7). Their remaining opponents have a combined record of 22-32 and a combined .408 winning percentage.
Toole doesn't want to talk about that because no coach wants to discuss that, and he's a coach.
But you might like to look at what the other four contenders have in front of them.
Wagner (9-5) is the only other of the five teams that faces a schedule with opponents holding a combined sub-.500 winning percentage. The Seahawks have a road game at St. Francis Brooklyn (6-8) Thursday, then a home game against LIU this weekend. They finish at FDU and at Monmouth. Combined record of their opponents is 23-33 and combined winning percentage is .411.
LIU Brooklyn has games at Mount St. Mary's (7-7) and at Wagner this weekend, then home games against Sacred Heart (7-6) and Quinnipiac (8-5). The combined record of the Blackbirds' remaining goes is 31-21.
Bryant plays four of its final five games at home, against Central Connecticut, Sacred Heart, the Colonials and Saint Francis University (3-11). They also have a game at Quinnipiac next Monday. The combined record of the Bulldogs' opponents is 34-33.
Quinnipiac faces a tough close with four of five games on the road. The Bobcats are at Sacred Heart, home against Bryant and then on the road against Central Connecticut State, St. Francis Brooklyn and LIU Brooklyn. The combined record of those five teams is 39-29.
So, yes, it seems Robert Morris is in a good position as the home stretch begins. But, being in that good position also raises the angst level.
"Everything's a concern right now,'' Toole said. "When you're in the position we're in, everything's a concern. The first 14 games have been unpredictable. These last four are going to be just as unpredictable - if not more. We have to make sure that whoever's playing is really strong in their understanding of what we need.''
One concern that stands out is how the Colonials have played with the lead.
Against Wagner at the Sewall Center, Feb. 9, the Colonials led, 47-27, in the first minute of the second half but had to go to overtime to win.
At Quinnipiac last Thursday night, they jumped out to an 18-4 lead in the first six and-a-half minutes and held a 51-46 advantage with seven and-a-half minutes remaining in the game but lost, 63-61.
That defeat prevented them from moving into sole possession of first place that evening because Bryant lost at Mount St. Mary's (and to Sam Prescott) earlier in the night.
"There was some disappointment, and there was some head-hanging going on a little bit,'' Toole said. "We missed an opportunity on Thursday to have a really terrific weekend, but I didn't want us to miss the opportunity that we had coming up on Saturday as well.''
So he told his team before the Sacred Heart game: "We're still in the same place as we were before Thursday started. We still have a great opportunity to control our own destiny as we go through these last two weeks.''
The Colonials reacted positively to that message and, playing without regular point guard Velton Jones (shoulder) again, built a 24-10 lead with 8:47 left in the first half. That lead shriveled to 30-27 at the break, but the Colonials seized control again in the second half and led, 64-48, with just 3:49 remaining. Then they had to sweat out the final minutes before finally winning by five points.
So what does this say about them?
"It says that we're not very good at being consistent, and we have to be more consistent in our focus and more consistent in our attention to details,'' Toole said. "Maybe we're the best not-tired team in the league. Once we get a little bit fatigued or once we get into rotations or once we get into the heat of the game, it seems we don't have the same focus or the same urgency that you have to have or that we had in the beginning of the games. That's something that's worrisome, obviously, to the coaching staff.''
And will continue to be worrisome if the same situations arise during crunch time of the NEC schedule.
"I worry about the ebbs and flows of our effort,'' Toole said. "That's what it becomes - a false sense of reality that the opponent's not going to continue to play and try and win just because you build a lead. You know, no one really cares about that, and sometimes it's easier to play from behind. Maybe you have to be a little bit more focused, a little more urgent. To be honest, this is not the best defensive team that we've ever had. The best way to not allow teams to get back into games is by defending.
"Our defensive details aren't as good as they've been in the past, and I think that's an individual by individual thing. I think our guys know what to do. I just think at certain times certain individuals either don't think it's as important as it really is or they think that we can just get by (without) doing it.''
If that continues, this also isn't difficult to discern - it's going to be a white-knuckle trip to the finish for the Colonials.
UP NEXT: Monmouth stayed alive in its bid to gain a spot in the NEC Tournament by beating visiting St. Francis Brooklyn, 73-64, last Saturday night. The Hawks shot 56.5 percent from the field and made 18-of- 19 free throw attempts. Ed Waite scored 23 points, hitting 10-of-11 field goal attempts, and Jesse Steele had 26 points and eight assists. Steele was 10-for-10 from the chalk and made six free throws in the final 39 seconds to keep the Terriers at bay.
Travis Nichols led St. Francis Brooklyn with 20 points, but the Terriers couldn't overcome making just 9-of-31 attempts from beyond the arc or going only 11-of-20 from the free-throw line.
P.S. ON PRESCOTT: Prescott, a junior guard, lit up Bryant for 44 points last Thursday night. He was 16-of-24 from the field, including 10-for-14 from international waters. He matched Bryant's team total with 28 points in the first half.
"You run through a buzz saw every now and then,'' Bryant coach Tim O'Shea said, according to Big Apple Buckets Blog. "A kid like Prescott, he's averaging eight or nine points per game, and he goes crazy on you. Just spectacular shooting. Spectacular. But that happens on your home court.''
Two days later, Prescott came back to earth a bit. He did score 18 points in the Mountaineers' 89-80 win against visiting Central Connecticut State, but he made only 1-of-7 attempts from three-point range. The Blue Devils had a rough weekend defensively. They lost at Wagner, 101-82, last Thursday night.
NEC NUGGETS: Sacred Heart was just 24-for-41 from the chalk against the Colonials, while Robert Morris sank 23-of-27 free throw attempts ... Wagner made it a bummer weekend for Bryant by beating the visiting Bulldogs, 89-75, Saturday. The Seahawks shot 54.1 percent from the field and received 20 points from Latif Rivers. Point guard Kenny Ortiz had 11 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Joe O'Shea had 21 points and Dyami Starks added 19 for Bryant ... Host LIU Brooklyn beat FDU, 92-67, despite making only 20-of-37 free throw attempts. Jamal Olasewere had 18 points but was just 4-of- 11 from the stripe ... Quinnipiac zipped to a 41-19 halftime lead against visiting Saint Francis University, out-rebounded the Red Flash, 46-19, and cruised to a 71-55 victory. The Bobcats' Ousmane Drame almost out-rebounded the Red Flash by himself. He had 15 rebounds.