By Paul Meyer
Jan. 5, 2012
Moon Township, Pa. - The Robert Morris University Colonials have finished their busy-ness.
Now it's time for them to get back to, and down to, business.
"It's conference time now,'' junior guard Velton Jones said.
The Colonials (11-4) completed the non-conference portion of their 2011-12 schedule with an impressive 70-67 win at Ohio University (12-2) Monday night.
"The win at Ohio University was a great exclamation point of our non-conference season,'' RMU head coach Andrew Toole said, "but we know that Northeast Conference play is where it's at for us.''
And where it will be for the remaining two months of the regular season. Sixteen games against league opponents, beginning Thursday night at Bryant, that will determine where the Colonials finish in the NEC.
Ideally, Robert Morris, which won its first two NEC games in early December, will win enough conference games to finish first in the regular season. That will ensure they'll play at home in the NEC Tournament for as long as they keep playing and should give them a leg up on securing a third trip to the NCAA Tournament in four seasons.
"(The coaches) are excited to get into it, and I hope our (players) are,'' Toole said. "I hope our guys understand that we have 16 games left in the regular season and every one (of them) is much more critical than the non-conference games we've played this year. I think and I hope we have pretty good leadership that understands that, but we're going to try to hammer it home so they really understand it.''
A listener wondered why the players might not understand the importance of each of these 16 games.
"Because,'' Toole said, ‘'you think about the fact that there is an NEC Tournament, (and the players think), Let's just get a good seed in the tournament.' I don't know what goes through their heads - (maybe) ‘Hey, we're a really good team. Maybe we don't have to prepare as much anymore. Look, we just beat Ohio U. so now we're good all of a sudden.' Just all the things that happen everywhere, maintaining success and continuing to not be satisfied, things that coaches struggle with when your team does have some success and beats some pretty good teams.''
Jones seems to understand the importance of the next two months. He's been through this twice. He knows what's ahead.
"You're going to play (most teams) twice, and it's conference,'' he said. "It's always exciting to play in the conference games. This is how you get to the (NCAA) Tournament. We stress that to the freshmen every day.''
One of those freshmen, Dave Appolon, recently has earned increased playing time, minutes that previously went to classmate Brandon Herman.
Appolon, slowed early on by a shoulder injury, played 13 minutes at Memphis Dec. 29 and had three points, three steals and an assist. He played another nine minutes at Ohio University. Herman didn't play in either game.
"Dave's done a really good job of improving, working hard, doing extra stuff, trying to figure stuff out,'' Toole said. "And we need another guard to come off the bench, especially when we go to league play where we play Thursdays and Saturdays. I don't think Coron Williams can play as many minutes as he's been playing, so we need another guard option.''
Williams, the Colonials' second-leading scorer, is averaging 31.3 minutes per game.
"Dave did a very good job at Memphis, and so he was rewarded with an opportunity (at Ohio University),'' Toole said. "He was solid in that game. He didn't do anything spectacular, but he also didn't do anything terrible. Ohio University's a very talented team. He gave us a really solid nine minutes in the first half when we had a handful of guys in foul trouble. Hopefully he can take this and continue to build on it and get more comfortable in the games. We definitely wanted to try to explore another guard coming off the bench who could give us something.''
"He had the whole beginning of the year to kind of stake a claim to those minutes,'' Toole said. "His play was a little bit sporadic, so we felt after watching practice and (seeing) Dave kind of come on, he's started to practice better and play better and compete more, that it was his turn to get an opportunity. He definitely made the most of it at Memphis, and he definitely didn't hurt himself (at Ohio University). We'll see. It might be something that goes back and forth during the year. I don't know. But right now Dave kind of has taken those minutes.''
The Colonials welcomed back post player Lijah Thompson at Ohio University. The 6'7'' junior hadn't played since Dec. 8 because of a broken foot. Against the Bobcats, Thompson played 14 minutes off the bench and contributed five points.
It's likely Thompson, a former starter, will continue to come off the bench for at least the short run while Lawrence Bridges and Mike McFadden will start in the frontcourt.
"Lijah's healthy, but he obviously hasn't played in a stretch and is still kind of getting his legs back,'' Toole said. "I don't know (what we'll do) yet. I like the fact that we do have some options and we have the ability to maybe go bigger and be more physical. It definitely helps when a guy gets a couple fouls early. Keith Armstrong (also) did very well at Ohio University. I like where that position is. We've never had depth in the frontcourt since I've been here. This is probably the most depth we've had, and we'll let them figure out how it plays out.''
The Colonials somehow managed to win at Ohio University despite committing 31 turnovers. Teams usually don't win when their turnover total is higher than their number of field goals made - in this case 25.
"It's not something I'd like to try and test again as a possible way to win a game,'' Toole said. "I don't know how you win the game. I have no idea, to be honest. I think seven (of the 31) were charges or illegal screens. And there were a couple wild scrambles where there were like two (turnovers) in 30 seconds. And we turned the ball over twice in the last minute against their pressure. Ohio U. does a really good job with their pressure, and they were down for the majority of the game, so they pressed a little more. Unfortunately, we were a little loose with the basketball and loose in our decision-making.
"But 31? We've talked about turnovers all year. Hopefully, that was our low point for turnovers and we'll improve from here on out.''
Ohio University coach John Groce seemed just as flummoxed by those 31 turnovers as was Toole.
"It's mind-boggling,'' Groce told the Athens Messenger. "I don't know if I've been in a game where we forced 31 turnovers and got beat.''
The win gave the Colonials a 9-4 record against non-conference foes. That matches the NEC record for most non-conference wins in a season set by Saint Francis (Pa.) in 1990-91, Monmouth in 1992-93 and was also matched by Wagner (9-2) this season. Robert Morris also won nine non-conference games in 2007-08.
This season's non-conference record is yet another solid achievement by a program that has established a ton of records in the past four or five seasons.
"That's actually one of the reasons why I came to Robert Morris,'' Jones said. "I wanted to try to help a team get on the map. When I first got here, if I went to the airport anywhere, and said, ‘Robert Morris,' not too many people knew who Robert Morris was. I knew coach (Mike) Rice and coach Toole were on their way to doing that (putting RMU on the map). It's getting there now. People are starting to realize who we are and (that) we're a good team.''
Bryant didn't fare nearly as well as the Colonials did in its non-conference games.
The Bulldogs, who lost their first two NEC games in December, are 1-12 overall and have lost 11 consecutive games since beating California-Davis (also 1-12) 70-63 Nov. 12 in a tournament in San Diego.
Guided by coach Tim O'Shea, Bryant is in its final season of transitioning from Division II to Division I. It finally will be eligible to qualify for the NEC Tournament next season.
"It's probably not as easy to motivate guys when they understand there's no postseason in their future,'' Toole said. "But I think they've done a really good job, to be honest with you. Each year, they've shown improvement, and I think that speaks to the job they're doing up there. They've been able to recruit. They've been able to coach. They've been able to motivate.
"Tim's doing a great job. It's a difficult position to be in, but they seem to be doing as good a job as you might be able to do in the position they're in.''
Bryant has played only two home games this season. The Bulldogs' resume includes losses to San Diego State, Notre Dame, Providence, Boston College and Arizona.
The Colonials, though?
"Obviously we're pretty excited about what we've done so far this season,'' Toole said.
Now it's on to the real business at hand.