And Away We Go ...
By Paul Meyer
November 10, 2011
Moon Township, Pa. - The season opener.
It's special every year.
"There's always a lot of optimism,'' Robert Morris University coach Andrew Toole said.
And always a lot of uncertainty, too.
"You're unveiling to the world what you've worked on for the past 10 weeks,'' Toole said, "and it can either be something that's exciting or something that's, ‘Oh, my gosh! We have a lot of work to do.'''
Toole and his Colonials will learn about their season opener Friday night when they play host to Rider at the Charles L. Sewall Center.
This is Toole's second season opener as the Colonials' head coach, and it will be different than last season's when he debuted as the youngest head coach in Division I basketball.
"It's definitely not like coaching your first game because that's truly a unique experience,'' Toole said, "but I think every opener you're anxious, you're excited, you're nervous. All those emotions are swirling around because every year there are new challenges. Every year you're trying to re-establish what you had done the year before - or change what you had done the year before.''
There isn't much for Toole and his team to change.
Last season, the Colonials finished 18-14 overall and 12-6 in the Northeast Conference, led the league in points allowed per game and played in their third consecutive NEC championship game.
It would seem, then, that the 2011-12 Colonials will focus on re-establishing themselves - with, hopefully, the help of six newcomers who simply will be trying to establish themselves in the NEC.
However, only four of those newcomers will be of help in the opener.
Sophomore Mike McFadden, a transfer from Iona, won't be eligible to play until mid-December because of NCAA transfer rules. And freshman David Appolon is still battling a shoulder injury.
That leaves freshmen Lucky Jones, Brandon Herman, Darren Washington and Keith Armstrong available to complement the upperclassmen in the early going.
In the Colonials' 76-70 exhibition win against Division II Wheeling Jesuit Oct. 31, that quartet played a total of 45 minutes and had eight turnovers and only six points - a collective performance that Toole termed "scary.''
"I think they're making some strides,'' Toole said. "I think they were a little bit surprised (against Wheeling Jesuit) at how hard everything is. I think in some ways they think I'm either over-selling things or over-dramatizing things to make them think that it's really harder than it is when I'm actually just being truthful. It's really hard to be successful in Division I basketball. It's really hard to do the little things that were very easy in high school - like catch the ball on the wing and take your space. So that game was the first indicator that, ‘Hey, guys, what we're talking about here is the truth.'''
"We have some guys that I guess still haven't learned their lesson about how urgent you have to be and how you can never relax,'' Toole said.
On balance, is Toole reasonably comfortable that those four freshmen will be able to play quality minutes against Rider?
"Maybe ‘Cautiously optimistic,''' he said. "But not ‘Comfortable.' In no way, shape or form am I comfortable because this is still going to be their first Division I game ever. They've made strides, but they're still inconsistent. Even throughout practice there are times when they look really sharp and they look like, ‘Boom! The light's going to go on.'
"And then they take a deep breath, exhale, relax and you throw your hands in the air because they've just done it so well and they think they've made it as opposed to doing it consistently the right way with the right effort every time. Nobody's going to do it the right way with the right effort 100 percent of the time, but that's what we have to try to push them to.''
It's likely Toole will start a lineup of veterans - senior Lawrence Bridges, juniors Velton Jones, Russell Johnson and Lijah Thompson and sophomore Coron Williams.
In the exhibition game, Johnson scored 23 points and Williams added 22.
"Without Russell Johnson and Coron Williams and their offensive output we don't win (that) game,'' Toole said. "We just flat-out don't win the game.''
Thompson, a 6'7" center, improved his contribution greatly from his freshman season through last season. His scoring average jumped from 1.8 points to 8.6 points per game. More significantly, he averaged 11.9 points per game over the final 11 games when the Colonials made their run to the NEC championship game.
Thompson played 24 minutes against Wheeling Jesuit as he continued to catch up conditioning-wise from a foot injury.
Is he close to 100 percent now?
"I think so,'' Toole said. "You know, his conditioning's probably a little bit behind where we'd love it to be because he just didn't have the opportunity to practice as long as he should. He's done a pretty good job of trying to do some extra stuff and get himself where he needs to be, but I think his stretches of minutes played might be a little bit shorter (early) until he can increase his capacity to stay in there longer. The last handful of days he's been trying to go a little bit harder in practice, push himself in practice more than he had so he can hopefully improve that conditioning.''
When Thompson needs a rest, Armstrong, a 6-foot-7, 230-pounder, will spell him.
"Keith is physically strong enough to be able to impact the game just with his strength,'' Toole said. "He doesn't get pushed around on the block. He's not soaring and grabbing rebounds, but he's doing a decent job of not allowing his guy to go and grab the rebound. He does a decent job of help defense.''
Playing good help defense is something the Colonials did spectacularly in last season's opener against Saint Peter's - like Rider a member of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. In its 55-30 victory, Robert Morris set program records by limiting the Peacocks to six field goals (in 36 attempts) and those 30 points.
Saint Peter's went on to play in the NCAA Tournament last season, something Rider has been unable to do since leaving the NEC after the 1996-97 season.
"They've always been knocking on the door of an NCAA Tournament berth, but they just haven't been able to get over the hump,'' Toole said. "One or two freaky things might happen at the end of the year, and they can never get over that hump. They're always really, really competitive in the Metro Atlantic.''
The Broncs last season were 23-11 overall and 13-5 in the MAAC. They're led by senior Novar Gadson, who enters this season with 1,153 career points, and senior Jeff Jones, a transfer from the University of Virginia who sat out last season.
Jones scored 555 points in his Virginia career and averaged 7.3 points per game for the Cavaliers as a junior.
"He's the all-time leading scorer in the Philadelphia Catholic League, so he's capable of putting up big, big numbers,'' Toole said. "You can never relax on him because he'll shoot it from 25 feet (or) he'll take you to the rim. He has a lot of versatility to his game.''
Jones is one of five Rider players from Philadelphia and was a teammate of Thompson's at Monsignor Bonner High School. Three Colonials are from Philadelphia, including Appolon.
"Our guys all know those guys,'' Toole said. "There's definitely a little bit of a sub-plot (to the opener). There's a chance (Rider will) start four or five Philadelphia kids.''
"There's bragging rights here a little bit,'' said Jones, RMU's point guard from Philadelphia's Northeast High School.
So there could be some chit-chat during the game?
"For sure,'' Jones said.
Does Jones know what he might say?
"No,'' he said, laughing. "You just react to how the game's going.''
NOTES: Rider beat Division II East Stroudsburg State, 74-61, in an exhibition game last Saturday. Gadson scored 20 points and Jones had 15 ... The Broncs are predicted to finish fourth in the MAAC ... Rider has had five consecutive winning seasons, including another 23-11 finish in 2007-08. That season, 6‘11" center Jason Thompson averaged 20.4 points and 12.1 rebounds per game and was the 12th pick overall by Sacramento in the National Basketball Association draft ... Rider will play at Pitt Sunday ... Robert Morris will play at Rider next season ... Take this with a grain, maybe a pound, of salt. In his first edition of Bracketology for this season, ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi projects the Colonials will meet Connecticut in the first round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament in Columbus, Ohio.