Moon Township, Pa. - There was this bit of absolutely unassailable logic in the statement Andrew Toole made last Saturday after his Robert Morris University Colonials clinched a spot in the Northeast Conference Tournament.
"If you're not in the tournament, you can't win the tournament,'' the RMU coach said.
See? It's undeniable.
So now that the Colonials are in it, can they win it?
That's a whole lot less clear.
Entering Thursday night's game against Bryant (2-24, 1-13), the Colonials (19-8, 10-4) hold the fourth seed for the NEC Tournament. If they keep that, they're guaranteed of only one home game in the tournament.
However, it's possible that if the Colonials beat Bryant, they'll head into the final three regular season games owning the third seed. That's because third-place St. Francis (N.Y.) plays at fifth-place Quinnipiac Thursday, and the surging Bobcats have won six of their past seven games.
"(Quinnipiac) is coming on (like) gang-busters,'' Central Connecticut State coach Howie Dickenman told the New Britain Herald last week after his team lost twice to the Bobcats in three days. "They're the type of team that when we come to the playoffs is not to be taken lightly.''
Following the Bryant game, the Colonials finish with CCSU at home Saturday night and at Sacred Heart and Quinnipiac. That's no easy wind-up, but if they head into that stretch possessing the third seed they at least control their own destiny in an effort to put themselves in better position to get a second home game in the NEC Tournament.
"Obviously you want to be able to get as many home games as you can and play in that game to go to the NCAA Tournament,'' Toole said.
That would be the NEC championship game, in which the Colonials played the previous three seasons, winning it twice.
OK, we're officially now getting way ahead of ourselves here, so let's re-focus on the short run.
The Colonials enter this stretch drive with some reason for optimism about their possibilities in March.
They've won three consecutive games, and achieved that winning streak because of some encouraging factors.
For one, point guard Velton Jones has become more of a playmaker than scorer.
In last Saturday's 70-56 victory over Saint Francis (Pa.), Jones had 13 points, which was fine. However, perhaps more significant were his seven assists. Not to mention his five steals.
"Me getting a lot of assists and getting people open shots is always a good thing for our team,'' the junior said. "It makes everyone feel like they're involved in the game.''
During the three-game winning streak, Jones has 31 points and 19 assists.
"I think what Velton needs to continue to do, and what he's done over the past three games, is make really good decisions,'' Toole said. "When he makes really good decisions, we're a very good team. In some of the games we've lost - Quinnipiac (at home Jan. 12), maybe at Central Connecticut State (Jan. 7) - his decision-making (wasn't) great. He tried to kind of take on four guys.
"You don't need to take on four guys. You need to draw four guys to you and then give it to one of your teammates. If there aren't four guys there, go right ahead and score it. I'm fine with that. But you need to keep making good decisions on a consistent basis so that our team can get good shots. In the last three games, our shot selection has been better, our assist total has been higher and magically our field goal percentage has gone up, as well.''
In those three wins, the Colonials from the field shot 53.3 percent at Mount St. Mary's, 56.0 percent at Saint Francis (Pa.) and 45.1 percent against Saint Francis (Pa.) at home. That's the best they've shot from the field in a three-game stretch this season.
It's no coincidence that in those three games the Colonials had 56 assists on their 75 field goals. Again, that's the best three-game stretch relative to assists-to-field goals they've had this season.
"I like my team when we take good shots,'' Toole said. "I don't care who takes them. I really don't. I don't care who scores. I don't care who shoots as long as it's a shot that they can make and that they're open shooting.''
Another encouraging aspect last Saturday night was the stat-sheet filling performance of Russell Johnson. The junior forward sparked the Colonials off the bench with 10 points, eight rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocked shots.
That followed Johnson's contributory effort at Saint Francis (Pa.) a game earlier, when he finished with six points, six rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block in 20 minutes off the bench.
"The last two games he's been terrific,'' Toole said. "When he focuses on doing what he's capable of, he's really good. What I mean by that is his defensive energy the last two games has been better than it has been since maybe the middle of December in terms of his ball pressure, close-outs (and) just his activity. He's shooting open shots, he's rebounding the ball and he's getting out in transition. That's what he does.
"I think he gets in trouble when he tries to break people down off the dribble, when he tries to do things that aren't his strengths. When he plays to his strengths, we can be a really good team. And he can be involved in all of it like he was (last Saturday night). He was involved in some great passing. He was involved in some great defensive plays. He had some great blocks. He had some great rebounds. He had some great finishes, and that's what he's capable of doing.''
The key thing for Johnson, and for the Colonials, is Johnson having games like this consistently.
"I think there was a little while where he wanted to break people down off the bounce and do some things that don't make sense for him,'' Toole said. "We have other guys who do that. We don't have a lot of guys who do some of the things he's capable of and we have other guys who do things he's not capable of, and that's how a team works. I think you have to trust in that and you have to believe in it and then (everything) kind of works and then you have success.''
Success is something the Colonials have achieved in abundance recently.
This is the ninth consecutive season they've qualified for the NEC Tournament.
"Obviously it's great to qualify for it,'' Toole said. "I think it's a good thing when our program has been there for nine years and there's an expectation that you have to be in it, that there's no reason not to be in it. If your expectations are any different than that, then you probably aren't having much success, so I'm glad we've been able to be in it for nine years.''
Toole and predecessor Mike Rice have taken the RMU program back to the heights it reached in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Colonials won the NEC championship three times in a four-season span.
After their three-game run to the NEC title in 1992, however, the Colonials were just 4-8 in the NEC Tournament over the next nine seasons. Then they were 2-5 during coach Mark Schmidt's six-season tenure.
Rice began RMU's recent ascent, guiding them to a 7-1 record in the NEC Tournament and two titles in his three seasons. Last season, Toole's first as the RMU head coach, the Colonials were 2-1 in the NEC Tournament.
That means that in the previous four seasons, the Colonials were 9-2 in the NEC Tournament - after going 6-13 in the prior 15 seasons.
Pretty good stuff.
"It speaks to the consistency of the program,'' Toole said. "Mark Schmidt did a great job of getting things going. Then coach Rice got here and (elevated) that. Now I'm trying to carry on that tradition of making sure that we have a successful basketball program that's competing at a championship level year in and year out.''